Innocence and Violence in the Slums of La Haine

One of the more striking aspects of the “hood” or banlieue film, La Haine (literally, “the hate”), is the choice of protagonists. This could be a procedural about the French police force’s endless crusade against crime in the suburbs around Paris. This could be an investigative journalist’s moment to expose the lies about the despair of the mostly displaced refugee communities outside of the city, Spotlight style, with all the glam and glitz of All the President’s Men. Yet, it’s three ordinary boys living the slums near Paris who take the stage in the film. Vinz, Hubert, and Said lead the viewer through the ups and downs of what seem to be a relatively normal day in the projects.

Sometimes, shootouts should be left to the Wild West

La Haine has its moments of physical violence. There’s the less than gentle hassles with the police as well as the torture in the police offices. There’s the fight with the skinheads in the street, where Hubert and Said are beaten by maniacs. There’s the dark moment where the policeman kills Vinz. Then, there is the retaliation by Hubert, revolver in hand. Each of these scenes is brutal, but lack the Michael Bay flair of loud explosions and death defying stunts. The only stunt is the struggle to survive.

However, what is most striking about this film is the psychological violence done to the boys. The suspicion of others causes them to be doubly careful. The rejection by the people around them isolate them. There is no escape from the violence in the streets, in the mind, and in the eyes of others. It seeps through the boys’ identities and lives. There are no shootouts or last stands. There’s no need for special effects. Sometimes the power of understatement is what it takes to point out something so egregious that it would be far better if it weren’t true. The violence in La Haine doesn’t need special effects to prove a point.

The color of the streets is black and white

Unlike most recent films in the same genre, La Haine is shot in black and white. One of the more immediate effects of the monochromatic choice of colors is the more serious tone of the film. It’s real, it’s happening, and people are dying. There’s nothing funny or glamorous about death. This is only one possible reason for the choice. One could look from a broader perspective and see that La Haine reflects an older tradition of shooting social realist dramas such as A Taste in Honey in black and white. As Kassovitz stated in an interview with The Guardian, “La Haine is about police brutality.”

The black and white add something to the architectural aspect of the film, which is set near Paris. It removes the romanticism of the City of Lights. Without the brilliance of colors normally associated with the famed city, something changes about its character. No longer are the streets catwalks for expensive jewelry and clothing. The windows lose their luminescence, and more importantly, the boys are in clear view, just wanderers in this bleak place. The color of the streets matches the way that the boys view their home, not a sanctuary or a shining beacon of culture, but a place of struggle and sharp divisions almost as distinctive as the colors black and white.

Boys will be boys until they have to face the police. Then, they will be punching bags.

Vinz would no doubt would be a fan of the handsome John-Waynesque cowboy of Westerns. His imitation of De Niro’s Travis Bickle is hilarious and sobering as he experiences the limitations of his idealistic views of masculinity. Said has a more fraternal view of masculinity, always wanting to be “in” with whatever the crowd has to say, whether it’s with Vinz and Hubert or Abdel, his idol. Hubert seems to have the most mature attitude, yet, his life is not without the consequences of violence.

This is not to say they are idiots. Rather, their unnatural ability to see through the structures of society is gained earlier than most. They, rightly, don’t trust anyone. The police can’t be trusted. The media just want to exploit the riots to increase ratings. There is constant rejection from high society in Paris, whether in the museum or in the street. There is no place for these boys in French society, and they know it.

The scenes with the police were undeniably hard to watch. Yet, would it really surprise anyone in France that two boys would be mistreated or attacked in the street by police? As Kassovitz’s film gained awards from the highest echelons of the cinematic world, he received constant criticism for being “anti-police”, going so far as to antagonize one of the most powerful people in France, President Sarkozy.

Violence is something that is often used in film, but not with the gravitas or skill of movies like La Haine. In most films, present action supersedes future consequence. Violence affects everything that happens to people in the suburbs, and it’s cost is staggering. “Hatred breeds hatred,” so Hubert says. When there is another shooting or stabbing in the slums of our own societies, one is left to wonder, how did we fail to see it coming? If one is to avoid such blindness, films like La Haine should be praised not put down. Alain Juppé had the right idea. If anything should be said about the film, it is that it is a film about mindfulness. We must remember that there are always children watching.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. A tour de force which I credit for beginning my own love for film. I remember a mate had his dad rent it for us and being blown away. Rewatched it a year or two ago and it remains as relevant now as it was then.

  2. A superb film. For some reason, the strange anecdote told by the old man in the pub toilet has stuck in my mind. He described how his friend went for a shit when allowed off a train during the deportations of World War 2. The train went off without him and he froze to death.

    • Yes, I agree that is probably the most memorable scene for me. It was impactful to see both how the boys reacted to the story, and to the old man specifically, and the applicability of the old man’s story to the boy’s lives as well, which is of course his intention, as he overheard them in the bathroom while they were arguing.

  3. Watched it again not long ago. Terrific film and feels like a documentary. All the cast are superb particularly Cassell – the French De Niro.

  4. Arevalo

    One of my best French cinema movie of all time.

  5. The movie’s called HATE for a reason. It’s a testament to the inevitable that occurs when anger takes over at nearly every social level and how using hatred as a retaliation just causes a cycle…of hatred. It’s pretty basic but also very complicated. It would be a good movie for today’s twitter morons to watch because everyone seems to think that there needs to be a bad guy, usually the cops.

  6. I saw this at the Ritzy in Brixton in 1995. An incendiary cinema experience.

  7. Great movie, watched it when I was about 15 a year or two after its release. Definitely opened my eyes to social issues and got me interested in politics. Also started a real love for world cinema.

    The scene with the decks set up at the window and the camera flyover is unforgettable.

    Battle Royale & The Raid round out my top three.

  8. Ackerman

    Very good piece, thanks.

  9. One of the few films I have seen at the cinema where everyone leaves in silence after being blown away.

  10. Chanel Yi

    God I love this film! Just devastatingly powerful. I’ve only seen it once some years ago and I loved everything about it. I really need to see it again some time soon.

  11. Venessa

    Interesting article, good read. Le Haine is an excellent film, a follow up would be interesting, especially if it explores the Islamic angle.

    • Have you watched Engrenages? It explores similar themes to those any follow up to La Haines would.

  12. Saw it at the cinema, bought it when it came out on VHS, still watch the opening titles nowadays soundtracked by Bob Marley’s ‘Burnin and Looting’
    One of my favourite films of all time, love the scene with Cut Killer setting up in his flat to boom out his scratching…


    Absolutely stunning film. and great to see it has a greater urgency and meaning behind it, rather than just being someone’s personal political vision.

  14. I remember it being a superb and electric film when I saw it, but my guess is that it’s all a bit rap video these days (films about youth culture and by youths usually have a short shelf-life). May watch it again…

  15. Good analysis. La Haine is up there with my favourites.

  16. Powerful film-making.

  17. Studied this for AS level French and had to right a piece on it and how the French government should look to this, as well as music (Disiz La Peste) and listen to what these communities were crying out for. Think I’ll go out and buy it for myself now.

  18. Alec Johnsson

    Excellent film. One of recent cinema’s best executed time bombs. It’s only grown on me since I first saw it, and it’s only dated better (speaking from the American perspective). Small details that still resonate with me: the clear discomfort of the rookie cop getting mentored by the guy torturing Saïd and Hubert; the Russian roulette; the bad way they learn of Abdel’s fate. That only Vincent Cassel became a household name after this is criminal.

    A line-by-line linguistic analysis of this would be well worth reading. Vinz, Saïd and Hubert speak largely in “verlan”, a French vernacular that functions on switching syllable orders. My late French professor, Mr. Kight, who turned me on to this, confessed to the class that even he had to watch this with subtitles. Even the title–“the hate”, an unnatural, albeit unusually understandable, phrase in English–conveys volumes about the language these characters use, how it shapes their culture, and how their culture shapes it. (I do have to quibble with Criterion for translating “Astérix” and “Obélix” as “Charlie Brown” and “Snoopy”; that comparison is a stretch.)

  19. toby smollett

    lemme ftfy, the film’s title is “A Taste 𝘰𝘧 Honey”
    -falsus in uno, falsus in omnibus

  20. I haven’t seen this film and infact I have never heard of it. But I am now definitely going to find it and watch it. I love the descriptions of the social environment of La Haine.
    Black and white is a great description of the streets and the attitudes of those who inhabit them. I have worked with street people for decades and everything to them is black and white. It is or it isn’t. They don’t have the luxury of ‘maybe’s’ or ‘I suppose.’
    Punching bags I see as more of a metaphor for life on the streets, and being at societies mercy, being blamed for the ills of the city or of the neighbourhood. And blamed because it’s easy and they don’t fight back (that hard anyway).

  21. Travis Shannon

    La Haine was not shot in black and white, it was shot on color negative and then transferred to BW in post

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