In two months, I will have a son. Finding this out—the son part, not the having a child part—left me flummoxed. It’s the only word to describe my bewilderment, the wonder of imagining what I will do with a boy. I don’t understand boys. So I started watching them. Little ones out at restaurants with their mothers. Bigger ones, just at the age where they are given permission to hang out with their friends without adults. By watching, I confirmed something I’d already suspected: boys on the teenage brink of adulthood spend a lot of their time together doing goofy things and talking shit.
These are the boys in “Les Misérables,” a film that is France’s 2020 Oscar selection for International Feature Film and a Golden Globe nominee for Best Motion Picture–Foreign Language. The tweens and teens here do their fair share of dumb things, one of which includes stealing a lion cub from a circus. If they were White, this might be treated lightly, like the hijinks of youth. But that is not this film.
“Les Misérables” shares a name with the famous Victor Hugo novel (turned long-running Broadway show), because both projects are set in Montfermeil, the Parisian suburb where Hugo wrote his project. But this “Les Misérables” centers on Les Bosquets, a vast swath of housing projects that are home to immigrant and first generation Black, Brown, often Muslim, French people.
The premise of the film is one we’ve seen before: a White cop (Damien Bonnard) on his first day on the job in a new neighborhood is being shown the ropes by a pair of veterans—one of which is White and power tripping (Alexis Manenti), the other is Black and burnt out (Djibril Zonga). In the two days that “Les Mis” spends in Les Bosquets, the decisions and actions of the people in the squad car propel the plot, but the film is not a police procedural. It is a story about the boys who they police, a violent, tense and stunted coming-of-age tale as they are shown again and again that they may be becoming men, but they are becoming men in a system that will always demand their submission.
Director Ladj Ly, 39, was raised in Les Bosquets. He told The New York Times that growing up there, “It was unconscionable what [the cops] would do. They were the only Whites we saw, and they treated us like monkeys.”
In 2002, Ly began filming the corruption. His observations point to what I missed when I began watching boys, what many of us miss: they are doing a lot more than being goofy. They watch us too. In “Les Misérables,” this is most evident in the character of Buzz (Al-Hassan Ly, the director’s son)—drawn directly from the life of Ladj Ly—who literally watches, using a drone that he flies around the neighborhood to spy on girls getting dressed and cops harming boys who could easily be him.
These boys watch and they know. They know who will protect them. They know who will not. The cops? Won’t. The courts? Won’t. The politicians? Won’t. The neighborhood leeches who want to get in good with the cops and politicians? Won’t. And as they tally the ever-expanding list of who won’t protect them, their rage builds.
Ly and cinematographer Julien Poupard shoot the ending, a stairwell uprising by the boys of Les Bosquets, in spaces that are too tight, too crowded. The only emotions happening on the screen are rage and terror; there is no hope on either side of the confrontation. Ly has said about living in Les Bosquets, “You can only be in revolt.” But he has shown that this revolution can be both brutal and beautiful.
Black rage is not a new phenomena. Stereotypes with a global reach are based on it. Entire systems are built to suppress it, to keep us—the rightfully enraged—constantly in check. We will never be as angry as we are policed. But the end of this film gives us what it could look like if this rage were to organize and find its target.
In two months, I will have a son. And now instead of watching boys, I focus on the men and women and media who have already decided who he will be and where he can go because he will one day be a Black man. My rage rises each time I consider them. To my son, I offer the hope that he will not always have to live in revolt, but also the knowledge that if he does, it is his. It is deserved.
Les Misérables opens in theaters in the United States on January 10.
More of Ayana’s Favorites:
Podcast: The Turn On
Book: ”Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations,” by Mira Jacob