Teaching La Haine

Steve Spence


Figure 1: DJ Cut Killer.  La Haine (Matthieu Kassovitz, 1995)












I teach at a small university in the suburbs of Atlanta, where I am white and most of my students are black. In a senior-level course called “Global Contexts in Media Studies,” I try to convince my students that many things are true: that “Gangnam Style” was just the tip of a musical iceberg, that Hindi films are only “too long and too slow” from one particular perspective, that globalization is not synonymous with Americanization. For fifteen weeks we try to think and feel our way past the boundaries of U.S. culture. This is hard work, but what works best of all is Matthieu Kassovitz’s brutal, elegant film La Haine, and the unlikely question that it raises: “Who owns hip hop?”

My students tend to be both proud and protective of black musical culture. Mostly Southern and mostly women, they are used to championing underdogs. Many have been fans of hip hop for as long as they can remember, and they consider their hometown, Atlanta, to be a major capital of the culture and its music. They know the broader history of white America’s engagements with African American music, a history marked by simultaneous denigration, exploitation, and outright theft. In part because their hopes for the future often are tied up with music industry dreams, they feel this history as more than just an abstract injustice.

They are often ready, therefore, to agree with reviewers who critique the ways that La Haine “uses” hip hop. Karen Alexander, for example, argues that the film’s “endless references to and mimicry of African-American culture” reflect a disabling superficiality. Because race and class work differently in Europe, she writes, “to filter [the] narrative through a transatlantic superstructure is to lose a specifically European ‘otherness.’”  In sum, she argues, “La Haine looks like an American film which has been badly transplanted.”[1]

But ours is a class about globalization, and Europe’s others are not so easily located. As it turns out, La Haine offers an excellent primer on the complexities of global cultural flows. My students often are surprised to learn that Paris (like Atlanta) is an epicenter of hip-hop culture. In fact, as hip-hop scholar Adam Krims has argued, “France is second only to the United States in the venerability of its scenes, the cultural influence of hip-hop, and its sophistication in the evolution of new artistic forms and cultural practices.”[2] My students often do not know that immigration is changing and challenging French society just as fundamentally as it is our own.[3] And they are surprised to learn that black and brown French youth have embraced the artistic languages of hip hop to speak their own truths about life in post-colonial France.

In this, of course, France is not alone. In the words of Robert Stam and Ella Shohat, hip hop has become our century’s “international lingua franca.”[4] This poses problems for students of globalization, particularly those of us drawn to theories of dependency and neoliberal cultural imperialism. Stam and Shohat summarize the conundrum: “The same U.S. based and multinational corporations that disseminate inane blockbusters and canned sitcoms also spread Afro-diasporic music around the globe.”[5] This music—and the broader culture from which it grows—has been embraced by marginalized and oppressed communities throughout the world. In these communities, as Halifu Osumare argues, hip hop serves as “a global signifier for several forms of marginalization. In each case ‘blackness,’ along with its perceived status, is implicated as a global sign.”[6] Hip hop’s powerful, global appeal cannot be dismissed simply as false consciousness.


La Haine in context

This background gives my students a different understanding of La Haine and the pervasive presence of hip-hop forms within it. The film’s showcase of hip-hop fashion, b-boying (also known as breakdancing), rap, DJing, and graffiti does indeed make La Haine a slicker, more export-friendly product. But hip hop also supports La Haine’s realist vocation, reflecting the real-life culture and commitments of the French youth that the film seeks to represent.

Conceived as a harsh indictment of contemporary France, La Haine tells the story of three young friends from a working-class banlieue [suburb] of Paris. Trapped by racism, poverty, and a police force that functions like an occupying army, their story is bleak: by film’s end at least one and probably two of the friends are dead, shot in the street by police. This is realism, in France as in the United States, where for decades unchecked police violence has plagued communities of color.[7] La Haine’s themes are sometimes painfully relevant, since my students’ encounters with police are both more frequent and more fraught than are my own.  Every semester I hear from students who are surprised by how contemporary they find this 22-year-old film.

And yet La Haine is simultaneously something more than indictment.  Its brutal portrait of the banlieue is threaded through with vitality, warmth, and humor. This complex tone is in fact a key contribution of hip-hop aesthetics, and my students get this as well. [8] They often understand the film, I would argue, better than many of its critics. Even a cursory viewing of La Haine reveals its fascination with hip-hop style, but scholars too often have discounted or ignored hip hop’s centrality to the film’s project.[9] Despite this scholarly neglect, as I argue elsewhere, “hip hop provides La Haine with far more than just flashy production numbers and a modish, subcultural style. Its influence is both thoroughgoing and formal, and the aesthetics of b-boying and sampling undergird the film’s most fundamental, forceful themes. In form as well as content, La Haine is a hip-hop film.”[10]

But do the filmmakers have the right to use hip hop in this way? Do the film’s characters, and the real-life people that they represent? My students are eager to evaluate and judge the cultural work accomplished by these French takes on a resolutely African American art form.  For several semesters I framed our discussion in terms that I thought clarified some of these issues. Recently, however, my students have helped me to see their limitations.


Americanization vs. indigenization

Early in the semester we read an excerpt from anthropologist Arjun Appadurai’s “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” which introduces the terms “Americanization” and “indigenization.” The reading poses the terms against one another, a heuristic binary that helps us work our way through some of the complexities of global media and its industries. Appadurai complicates claims that globalization is re-casting formerly diverse societies in the mold of American commodity culture. “What these arguments fail to consider is that at least as rapidly as forces from various metropolises are brought into new societies they tend to become indigenized in one or another way.”[11] Indigenization, he suggests, describes diversifying practices that grow out of the needs and desires of local people and communities.

As we begin our study of La Haine, I remind them of Appadurai and suggest that something like “Americanization” is on the minds of critics like Alexander, who dismiss La Haine as a glossy package of international fashion and stylized violence. What these critics miss, I suggest, is the fact that real-life banlieue residents are busy with the work of indigenization, turning hip-hop forms to their own ends. French hip-hopeurs are attached to their (sometimes mythic) understanding of African American history and culture, but their artistic practices deviate in important ways from U.S. forms. As Felicia McCarren notes, “The French appropriation of hip hop is nuanced by postcolonial history and goes beyond a unidirectional cultural transfer.”[12]


Indigenization vs. appropriation

But in fall 2017, our class’s conversation soon shifted out of the territory defined by my terms. In general the class accepted indigenization and the positive spin given it by Appadurai. But the more telling opposition, in their view, was not “Americanization” but “appropriation.” This gave them the framework to address a fundamental question: Are the filmmakers and their characters mechanically copying African American culture? Or are they using it as a ladder to elsewhere, an ingredient that forms part of some potent new concoction?  Collectively, the class re-defined “indigenization” as a transformative process, the turning of a cultural import (like hip hop) into something new. The term, they argued, should be reserved for blends and hybrids, new combinations of the local and the foreign. Less admirable were practices that the class labeled appropriation. For example, they pointed out that the characters Hubert and Vinz simply adopt the clothing styles of American hip hop without significant change. For this, they and the filmmakers were guilty of appropriation, like white Americans who thoughtlessly traffic in the signifiers of black culture. But several class members stressed that their critique was based in a cultural rather than a racial judgment. Vinz is white and Hubert is black, but neither is a member of the community that created hip hop. In both cases, therefore, their mimicry of the clothing styles qualifies as appropriation.

On the other hand, the class approved of the film’s cameo performance by Anouar Hajoui, the Parisian artist better known as DJ Cut Killer. Cut Killer’s turntable mix combines French popular music, French rap, and American rap, creating an original composition. The resulting song “spoke French,” marking it as a successful example of indigenization.


“No biting”

Not coincidentally, the contrast that my class set up between indigenization and appropriation parallels one of American hip hop’s governing aesthetic values. As anthropologist Joe Schloss demonstrates in his book-length study Making Beats, the community of hip-hop producers shares a commitment to a particular kind of originality. Producers take as given the fact that hip-hop music is built from samples of previously recorded music; unlike many academics, they see little need to defend this practice.[13] Instead, what matters is what the producer does with these samples. The most basic ethic, Schloss writes, “is to be original, often expressed in simple terms as ‘No biting.’”[14] Producers are expected to avoid using song elements that already have been sampled by another producer. If they do re-use a sample, producers must “flip” it, altering the sample in some significant and original way. Similar boundaries are enforced for rappers. Few insults are more cutting than the claim that a favorite artist has copied another rapper’s lyrics.

My students do not tend to be rappers or producers, but many strongly identify as part of hip hop’s interpretive community. Once acquainted with French hip hop, they see little problem with La Haine’s deployment of cultural elements taken from elsewhere. But they expect the filmmakers to live up to their commitments to hip hop by adhering to its aesthetic and ethical systems. Somewhat paradoxically, La Haine only qualifies as hip hop to the extent that it changes it—indigenizes it—by adding its own, original verse to the global chorus.



Steve Spence is professor of media studies at Clayton State University. His publications include another recent article on La Haine, which appeared in Liquid Blackness (4.7).



[1] Karen Alexander, “La Haine,” Vertigo 1, no. 5 (Autumn/Winter 1995), https://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/vertigo_magazine/volume-1-issue-5-autumn-winter-1995/the-children-of-godard-and-90s-tv/.

[2] Adam Krims, “Introduction,” in Alain-Philippe Durand, ed. Black, Blanc, Beur: Rap Music and Hip-Hop Culture in the Francophone World (Lanham, MD, 2002), vii.

[3] Charles Tshimanga, Didier Gondola, and Peter J. Bloom, eds. Frenchness and the African Diaspora: Identity and Uprising in Contemporary France (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009).

[4] Robert Stam and Ella Shohat, “French Intellectuals and the U.S. Culture Wars,” Black Renaissance/Renaissance noire (3:2) Apr 30, 2001, 90.

[5] Ibid.

[6] ”Halifu Osumare, “Global Hip-hop and the African Diaspora,” in Black Cultural Traffic: Crossroads in Global Performance and Popular Culture, eds. Harry J. Elam, Jr. and Kennell Jackson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press), 269.

[7] Crystal Marie Fleming, Resurrecting Slavery: Racial Legacies and White Supremacy in France (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2017).

[8] I expand this argument in Steve Spence, “Hip-Hop Aesthetics and La Haine,” Liquid Blackness 4.7 (October 2017), 96-115, http://liquidblackness.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Full-Final.pdf.

[9] A notable exception is Will Higbee, Mathieu Kassovitz (New York: Manchester University Press, 2006), which offers an extended reading of hip hop’s importance to the director’s early films, including La Haine.

[10] Spence, 111.

[11] Arjun Appadurai’s “Disjuncture and Difference in the Global Cultural Economy,” The Globalization Reader, 5th ed., eds. Frank J. Lechner and John Boli (Malden, MA: John Wiley and Sons, 2015), 96.

[12] Felicia McCarren, French Moves: The Cultural Politics of Le Hip Hop (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 49.

[13] Joseph G. Schloss, Making Beats: The Art of Sample Based Hip-Hop (Middletown, CN: Wesleyan University Press, 2004), 67.

[14] Schloss, 101 and 105.



The Cine-Files, issue 13 (fall 2017)