I have nothing against the nightly French soap opera (fittingly set in Marseille, one of the world capitals of soap) Plus Belle la Vie. In fact, I’m one of the 6 million viewers that you shouldn’t try to call between 20h20 and 20h50 Monday through Friday; I’m addicted. My French intellectual friends no doubt look down on it but in fact, I’d argue that apart from the usual ludicrous crime threads, it’s a realistic, multi-generational look at human relations, particularly those between families, nuclear and constructed. Even if the crime threads are far-fetched, they usually act as catalysts for the more realistic human relations. Indeed, as often as not it’s the constructed family of the semi-mythical Mistral neighborhood that rescues its own from diabolical plots often as not caused by blood relations, often but not always fathers. But there’s one color in which this world rings profoundly false, and that’s in the invisibility of blacks.
In fact, the neighborhood after which the Mistral seems modelled, and in which much of the action seems to be shot, resembles the Panier district of Marseille, with its narrow streets and steep staircases. Except that… except that in reality part of that cosmopole includes French Africans. Yet if in every other way the world — the family or even community, if you will — of Plus Belle la Vie is admirably representative, with male and female gay couples often playing central roles, and subplots involving all generations, the color white, even in the multi-color Marseille, dominates. There is a brother-sister couple of North African/Magrebian/Arab origin, Malik and Samia, and they’re not only a lawyer and a police intern, respectively, but two of the purest characters in the community. But when it comes to African, or plutot the color black, the score is just about zero. A metisse character, Rudy, is the closest one comes. Apart from that, in the year I’ve been watching the show, I’ve seen a total of two black or African characters that featured prominently, more or less in the same storyline, Rudy’s father and a character named Tamara; one was an angel, the other somewhat of a demon. The only other appearance I can think of was a minor character who, of course, was a voyou or petit criminal.
I’m talking about this now because this morning on France Culture, Lamence Madzou, a former Parisian gang leader and the co-author of “Chef de Gang,” recounted the story of an African-American visitor who commented that on the streets of Paris, he felt like he was chez lui because of the number of black faces, but when he turned on the television, it was the opposite.