The Best French Movies About Race And Social Justice That You Need to Watch

As large protests and rallies have occurred in response to the killing of George Floyd, there is heightened public awareness about racial discrimination and inequality, not only in the United States, but also in France

In a time when many of us are looking for ways to combat racism in our society, movies are effective in bringing meaningful stories to life and offer an easy way to help us to address these issues

The following French films, which explore race and social justice, can help you inform yourself and delve deeper into prejudice and racial discrimination. They all contain aesthetic representations of race and gender in contemporary France, along with key messages, like the importance of diversity, tolerance and acceptance.

1. Les Misérables

The film, directed by Ladj Ly and released in 2019, is not another adaptation of the Victor Hugo novel and it’s definitely not a musical. Set in Montfermeil, the same Paris suburb that inspired part of the 19th-century classic, it tells the story of this neighborhood’s impoverished residents.

Many of the movie scenes are taken directly from the pages of the director’s own life. His family arrived in France after emigrating from Mali in the 1980s. He grew up in Montfermeil, a place now plagued by police violence, ethnic clashes and little opportunity.

However, this popular French movie is not a biography but a modern-day cop thriller — and it’s France’s entry to the Oscars. It was selected to compete for the Palme d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize. It was selected as the French entry for the Best International Feature Film at the 92nd Academy Award. The film also received 3 nominations to the 32nd European Film Awards, for Best Film, Best Screenwriter and European Discovery, winning the latter.

2. Divines

This film, released in 2016, narrates the story of Dounia (Oulaya Amamra), a teenage girl living in a Romani banlieue on the outskirts of Paris with her mother and aunt.

She and her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) hustle for money, shoplifting from supermarkets and then reselling their wares on the streets to their classmates. Both girls dream of getting the hell out of their estate and making it big somewhere, anywhere, with a lot of money.

This film about the Paris banlieues won three César awards in 2017, and the Caméra d’Or at Cannes. You can watch it online on Netflix.

3. Bande de Filles (Girlhood)

Directed by Céline Sciamma, Bande de Filles portrays a group of black teenagers living in a suburb of Paris (banlieue), and struggling to find themselves in a economically and socially-deprived setting. Constantly forced to prove their toughness, they often must resort to violence, which reaches a boiling point on several occasions.

The film discusses and challenges conceptions of race, gender and class. Sciamma’s goal was to capture the stories of black teenagers, whose characters are generally underdeveloped in French films, in her opinion. As critic Mick LaSalle pointed out, “it’s as if [the director] is saying, not stridently, but plainly, ‘Here’s something real people are going through that you’ve never thought about.’” (San Francisco Chronicle, 2015).

The movie director’s inspiration for the film came from the different gangs of girls that she saw around Paris, especially around the Les Halles shopping center and the Métro. Her intention was to focus on friendship, sorority, and the special bond that is formed between girls.

The film, also available to watch on Netflix, received highly positive reviews from critics. It was screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight section of the 2014 Cannes Film Festival. It was also shown in the Contemporary World Cinema section at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival.  Girlhood received four nominations at the 40th César Awards, including Best Director for Céline Sciamma and Most Promising Actress for Karidja Touré.

4. Entre les Murs (The Class)

This film, which was released in 2008, is based on François Bégaudeau’s novel, a semi-autobiographical account of his past experiences as a literature and French language teacher in a middle school in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. Directed by Laurent Cantet, ‘The Class’ follows the lives of ethnically-diverse and troubled pupils, and of the idealistic young teacher who attempts to inspire them through French literature, in a tough urban environment.

This film, which was released in 2008, is based on François Bégaudeau’s novel, a semi-autobiographical account of his past experiences as a literature and French language teacher in a middle school in the 20th arrondissement of Paris. Directed by Laurent Cantet, ‘The Class’ follows the lives of ethnically-diverse and troubled pupils, and of the idealistic young teacher who attempts to inspire them through French literature, in a tough urban environment.

This ‘fresh piece of humanist, realist, optimist cinema’ (Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian, 2009) won the Palme d’Or at Cannes. The characters and their stories are quite engaging, and the actors, who are non professionals, are talented. Completing the realistic approach chosen by the film director is the exclusive use of handheld camera work. These aspects combine to create the feeling of watching a documentary.

5. Dheepan

Dheepan is another film that explores life in the Parisian banlieues. This 2015 French drama film was directed by Jacques Audiard. It narrates the story of three Tamil refugees who flee the civil war-ravaged Sri Lanka and come to France, in the hope of reconstructing their lives.

As Audiard explained in The Guardian (2015), his intention was to give migrants “a name, a face, a shape… a violence of their own”.

The film won the Palme d’Or at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival. It was later shown in the Special Presentations section of the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival. Commenting on the film, critic Jason Gorber notes that besides depicting immigrant experiences and integration, the film “is polemical without being didactic, and its message about human spirit and how connections of love can flourish in the most astonishing of ways is extremely moving“.

Race, Racism and Racial Justice Resources

Interested in watching engaging contemporary French movies?

Lost in Frenchlation brings the best of French cinema to the international community in Paris.

Provided with English subtitles, their private screenings offer you a genuinely French experience to learn more about the French language and culture via one of France’s finest arts.