Written by Carter Thallon
The critically acclaimed French cult film La Haine celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. La Haine follows three young men, Saïd, Hubert, and Vinz, from the projects in the suburbs of Paris directly following a riot sparked by the malicious beating of a youth in police custody. Writer/Director Mathieu Kassovitz was inspired to write the film after Makome M’Bowole, a young man from North Africa, was accidentally shot and killed while in police custody in Paris (a city that already had a history of racially-motivated police brutality in the 20th century) in 1993. M’Bowole’s death led to riots and mass protests in Paris against the police force. Kassovitz says that he did not participate in these riots, but instead protested artistically by creating La Haine, which he describes as an anti-police film.
Twenty years later, police brutality is still a prevalent and tragically pervasive issue — the recent murders of people of color by the police throughout the United States have sparked protests, occasionally precipitated riots, and galvanized the Black Lives Matter movement.The past few years has seen many modern artists attempt to combat this issue through art like Kassovitz before them. One of the more noteworthy cases is Colin Tilley’s music video for Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” — a standout track from critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly that’s earned four grammy nominations, including Song of the Year and Best Music Video. The video is very reminiscent of La Haine’s cinematography, iconography, and commentary on police brutality. Despite the twenty years that separate them, both La Haine and “Alright” are compelling examples of nonviolent protests of police brutality through music, art, and the traditional components of Hip-Hop.
In both La Haine and “Alright,” the four fundamental pillars of Hip-Hop culture (DJing, MCing, B-boying and graffiti writing) are prominently displayed. Bambaataa first outlined these pillars during the early 1970’s in the Bronx to codify the emerging movement of Hip-Hop and further its mission of stymying gang violence and racial prejudice. The pillars support a culture that is based on the idea that battles should not be fought physically but through creative expression. La Haine and “Alright” both incorporate all four pillars of Hip-Hop in their respective works in order to put forth and distribute the ideas of Hip-Hop culture.
The two pillars of Hip-Hop that are most closely connected are MCing and DJing. In La Haine these pillars are most prominently featured when a DJ loudly blasts his music over the projects. The DJ communicates his protest through the lyrics of the songs that he pointedly samples. He mixes several choice songs together on his turntable, but most conspicuously KRS-One’s “Sound of da Police,” one of Hip-Hop’s most famous and recognizable songs, with lyrics that accuse the police of being corrupt.
Specifically, KRS-One claims that because he is part of a minority, the police frame him for crimes that he didn’t commit (like selling drugs). In La Haine, Saïd and Hubert (who are both part of ethnic minorities) are randomly stopped and searched by the police and then brought into an interrogation room where they are humiliated, choked repeatedly, and threatened with rape. KRS-One’s song protests the institutional racism, oppression, and violence against minorities that Kassovitz’s characters experience.
Kassovitz further suggests the power and nature of this nonviolent protest through his direction of the scene. The DJ in La Haine clearly loves his craft and appears happy and peaceful before he starts performing. This depiction is reinforced through Kassovitz’s use of a slow, meandering helicopter shot that travels from the apartment window of the DJ out over the rooftops of the projects, creating the illusion that the music is gently wafting over the buildings and their inhabitants.
Like La Haine’s use of “Sound of Da Police,” the music video for Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” addresses America’s long history of police violence against minorities several times. In a poem addressed to Tupac, Kendrick states that Pac is fighting, “A war that was based on apartheid and discrimination,” as a black man is shot in the back by a cop on screen. He continues this thought within the song itself, as his pre-hook verse includes the line, “We hate po-po/ wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho.” Throughout the song, though, he never mentions any violent retaliation against the police. Despite all of the aggression and oppression that Kendrick and his people have experienced, he doesn’t succumb to depression or seek revenge but instead peacefully preaches that, “…if God got us/ Then we gon’ be alright.”
The artistic protests extend to the other pillars in La Haine, when, in an abandoned building, a small audience looks on entranced, as several B-boys are practicing. After a montage of the B-boys performing various moves, someone runs in and yells that “shit’s going down” and everyone rushes outside to see the gunfight. However, the B-boys stay behind, and one continues to perform even after everyone else leaves, spinning on his head. This shot displays the B-boys’ nonviolent ideals — unlike the rest of the inhabitants of the projects, they aren’t concerned with physical violence, their battles are fought through art.
Kassovitz combines numerous cinematic devices in his composition of this shot to help emphasize the peacefulness of the B-boys. Kassovitz ends the funky beat that they have been dancing to and the scene becomes silent apart from a distant siren wailing; the abrupt silence of the room adding to the tranquility of the B-boy gently spinning on his head. He also frames the shot so that the B-boy’s legs are off screen, his upper torso and bent arms revolving, invoking a likeness to that of a rotating globe (the earth being a motif in the film).
Dancing is also a very prominent component of “Alright.” Kendrick himself vibes to the beat, both in his car and in the street. Eventually, several dancers energetically perform in front of a mass of speakers and on top of a police car. Director Colin Tilley says that the dancing helps convey the positive message behind the video, and that, “[I]t gives hope.” While this portrayal of dancing is not such a blatant image of nonviolent protest as in La Haine, the happiness and positivity of the dancers still conveys a similar, carefree and lighthearted vibe.
The landscape of Saïd, Hubert, and Vinz’s neighborhood is covered in mostly illegible graffiti. However, there are several poignantly placed lines of graffiti in the background of the film. The first graffiti that we are shown in the film is actually also the first time that we are introduced to Saïd, as he scrawls, “Baise la police” (“Fuck the police”) on the back of a French police car with a permanent marker. Defacing a police car in itself is an act of nonviolent protest, but as is prevalent in Hip-Hop, Saïd’s graffiti is a new iteration of a previous work of art. Specifically it references Hip-Hop group N.W.A’s famous 1988 protest song, “Fuck tha Police.” In the song, they rap about police corruption, discrimination, and the abuse of power. Like N.W.A, the film’s protagonists are labeled as troublemakers because of their age, ethnicity, and class. Writing graffiti or a protest song both offer a peaceful and creative outlet for Saïd and N.W.A. to convey their feelings of anger and contempt.
Several other pieces of anger-laden graffiti are displayed throughout the film and are mostly associated with Vinz, mirroring his aggressive attitude. In the dark warehouse where Vinz has hidden his gun, there is graffiti in the background that reads, “The guardian of beats, you suck cocks,” and behind Vinz when he enters Hubert’s looted gym, “Your mother sucks bears” is shown briefly, scribbled on the wall. The most noticeable of these pieces is written on a door that Vinz runs through, reading “Arash Ta Mere” or “Fuck your mother.” This graffiti is undoubtedly meant to be an extension of Vinz, as when he rushes through the door, he is also yelling various obscenities back at a policeman. While Vinz and the graffiti are spouting anger, words alone don’t have the power to kill. Like graffiti, Vinz is all talk, and never actually acts on his pledges of violence and revenge in the film.
However, Kassel also displays another side of graffiti in the film, balancing Vinz’s vulgarity with the peaceful graffiti associated with Hubert. The sentence “L’avenir c’est nous” — “The future is us” is framed right above Hubert’s head early in the film, alluding to the positivity of the phrase by relating it to Hubert who always seeks to avoid violence if possible and tells Vinz that violence is not the solution. Saïd also offsets his previously aggressive graffiti at the end of the film when he changes a billboard from saying, “the world is yours” to “the world is ours.” The subtle change makes a big difference in its meaning. The change from ‘yours’ to ‘ours’ seems to symbolize a switch from an oppressive imposed statement to an inclusive one. While none of this graffiti is explicitly anti-police, it promotes the characters’ tone of dissent through nonviolent means.
In “Alright,” graffiti is shown throughout the video, highlighting the urban backdrop of Oakland and Los Angeles. While there aren’t any close ups of specific pieces of graffiti art, its inclusion in the film exceeds simply adding to the ambiance. The often messy and sprawling nature of graffiti symbolizes the presence of disorganization and chaos in sections of L.A. due to the poverty, racism, and violence that have plagued parts of the cities for decades. Kendrick alludes to these problems in the poem at the start of the video, saying his loved ones are “fighting a continuous war back in the city.” However, despite yet another set of problems that Kendrick has pointed out, the message of the song maintains that, “we gon’ be alright,” and continues advocating for positivity in the face of hardship.
At the end of both films, the protagonists are shot and killed by a police officer. Vinz is accidentally shot in the head by a plainclothes police officer who was harassing him. Kendrick is taken down by an officer without a gun at all; killing him by simply pointing his fingers at Kendrick and then twitching a finger like a trigger (suggesting the ease at which officers can kill). By ending their pieces in this way, both emphasize the central message of their work, that institutional violence is pervasive despite social movements against it. What’s truly impactful is that one of these pieces was made twenty years after the other, and yet the message continues to resonate across developed nations.
While police violence has unfortunately persisted over the past twenty years, Hip-Hop culture has continued battling this atrocity and persistently produced socially and politically minded pieces of art, advocating for nonviolent responses in the face of injustice. In fact, “Alright”’s message has resonated with so many people that protesters at a Black Lives Matter rally in Cleveland back in August started chanting the chorus from the song, and people all over the country took notice with a video of the protest reaching nearly half a million views on YouTube. Progress may be slow, but if Hip-Hop influenced artists continue to call social issues to attention with engaging and thoughtful art, creativity can continue to inspire nonviolent protest and activism.