On September 4, 2020, New York-based brand Aimé Leon Dore released a capsule collection of hoodies, t-shirts and jackets; the pieces were all emblazoned with the line “le monde est a nous” (the world is ours) from Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film, La Haine. The proceeds from the collection were donated to Ecole Kourtajmé, an independent, free film school founded in 2018 in the Paris suburbs of Clichy-Monterfermeil, where some of the most violent Paris riots took place. As in La Haine, the riots involved predominantly African, North-African and Arab youth. The Aimé Leon Dore collection was a stark reminder that the events portrayed in La Haine continue to take place.
The release of the Aimé Leon Dore x La Haine collab in 2020 isn’t a coincidence. Not only does 2020 mark 25 years since the film’s initial release, but the year was one of significant civil unrest sparked by the murder of George Floyd in May. Obvious discord surrounding how and why Floyd came to die at the hands of Minneapolis police-officer Derek Chauvin led to more than 10,000 Black Lives Matter protests held across the USA from May to August. While the 2020 BLM protests have undeniably enacted positive change, with several laws being passed that aim to reform how police systems work in America, a more provocative question could be this: why is police brutality against Black, indigenous and other people of colour still happening? Re-phrasing the title of this article, it may even be more appropriate to ask: why is Mathieu Kassovitz’s La Haine still relevant 25 years on?
Of course, La Haine is a French film. It is a film about growing up in the Banlieues of Paris, an area that has been synonymous with low-income housing and youth violence since the 1970s. Despite this specific setting, the motivations behind the film’s antagonists are universal. The racist rhetoric pushing the police in La Haine is the same one pushing the police and those within the educational institutions in contemporary society that continuously disenfranchise BIPOC. It’s a deep-rooted, systematic desire to maintain a paradigm of social inequality.
La Haine starts and ends with an anecdote about a man falling from a skyscraper. As he falls, he is heard saying the words, “So far, so good… so far, so good”. When he inevitably hits the ground, this optimism will be shattered. “How you fall doesn’t matter, it’s how you land”; These words are spoken at the end of the film by Hubert, a quiet and pensive Afro-french character, as Vinz, a Jewish character iconically played by Vincent Cassel, is shot by the police. The physical momentum of falling from a building is paralleled by the escalation of police violence, with Vinz’s death being the inevitable result of this. In the same way, the events of 2020 seem to be the inevitable result of the continuous subjugation of Black people. We seem to have forgotten the other message at the core of La Haine: “La haine attire la haine” (hatred breeds hatred).
It’s difficult to distinguish whether the past 25 years were slowly accelerating towards the events of 2020, or if we, as a society, are simply caught in a continuous cycle of falling and getting back up. Before George Floyd, there was Trayvon Martin in 2012 and Makome M’Bowole in 1993 (the young man shot while in police custody that inspired Mathieu Kassovitz to write La Haine). While these events remind us of the oppression of BIPOC, they also show us that for every tragedy there will be someone that stands up and talks about it, or creates something about it. This is a continuous cycle too, yet an incredibly positive one. La Haine is revisited by Slowthai in his music video for North Nights, by A$AP Mob in Money Man. The Banlieues is the setting for the 2019 reimagining of Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables, where Ly grew up and later helped establish Ecole Kourtajmé.
These people are not alone; they exist within a wider framework of artists that create music, fashion and film that aims to incite change. Angelo Baque, the former Supreme founder and New York native, takes his experiences within the city’s vibrant immigrant community and incorporates them into his work with Awake NY. The 2020 Supreme collaboration with New Era commemorated the long-standing rivalry between the Yankees and the Mets, an eponymous part of NYC culture, while donating a portion of the proceeds to the New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), a Queen’s based organization dedicated to improving the lives of immigrant workers. Kyle Ng, the Asian-American founder of Brain Dead, also endeavoured to support the movement in every way he could. On June 1, 2020 the brand’s warehouse was shut down in order to actively protest while their t-shirt collaboration with Dev Hynes, emblazoned with the words, “If you love Black culture, save Black lives”, raised a staggering $500,000 for the Black Lives Movement.
The music industry seems harder to navigate. While there have been a few dubious attempts at post-BLM anthems by J. Cole and Lil Baby, Kendrick Lamar’s 2017 song DNA feels like a masterclass on how to incorporate such a provocative subject into your art. The song samples Fox news coverage of Lamar’s 2015 BET awards performance of his song Alright, which Lamar performed with a defaced police car. In the sampled snippet, the white news presenters are heard saying, “This is why I say that hip hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” By using this in DNA, Lamar rejects and subverts the aims of the Fox commentary and draws a clear line between his own definition of Blackness and the negative ideas of Blackness perpetuated by systemically racist popular media. The video for DNA also subverts typical power hierarchies in an interrogation room scenario, with prominent Black actor and activist Don Cheadle interviewing Lamar and later rapping along to the lyrics with him. Rapper and poet Noname’s book club is also a testament to the creative impact that is possible. Running monthly, the Noname Book Club features readings on radical politics and the effects of racial capitalism on the Black community. Though the book club is not a saleable commodity, the organisation takes an active stance against the Prison Industrial Complex by sending out their monthly book picks to incarcerated Black people around the United States.
Rather than being a performative display, these individuals are creating art and movements informed by their experiences of being marginalized themselves while paying homage to those marginalized before them. What we are seeing is not just postmodern referentiality, but a beautiful marriage of culture and activism.
While the relevancy of La Haine in today’s society is shocking, it is important because it reminds us that police brutality against BIPOC is still happening. It also affirms that youth culture is the driver of change. Mathieu Kassovitz was only 26 when he directed La Haine, and the film’s impact is still being felt today. With contemporary youth culture engaging with the work of their predecessors and the world around them, the future will hopefully be defined by fashion, music and film that both inspire and enact social change.
By Amber Rawlings