The French actor Omar Sy flaunts his sense of ease through every scene of Lupin, a modernized adaptation of the Arsene Lupin novels, the Gallic analogue to Sherlock Holmes—except Lupin is not a private detective but a thief by trade, a “gentleman cambrioleur.” The ambitiously themed yet tonally playful French series has been a boon for Netflix, the streamer’s third most successful global launch. The son of immigrant parents, a Senegalese father and Mauritanian mother, Sy’s own experience of having grown up in Paris surely mirrors, in some way, the alienation of the show’s protagonist, Assane Diop. An Arsene Lupin fan and expert imitator who loses his beloved father Babakar (Fargass Assandé) after the latter is framed by his wealthy white employer Hubert Pellegrini (Hervé Pierre), Diop steals not for his personal pleasure or fancy, but for sorely deferred justice. Part two of the series, out Friday June 11, emphasizes the morality of Diop’s aims. Thievery is not a moral failing here, but a perhaps imperfect form of dignity in survival; it’s the murderousness of the powerful that should be held to account. Diop tends to emerge mostly unscathed from every dust-up with the most unsavory of characters; and the scrappy justice meted out touches not only his younger self and a nameless group of suffering Black children (offered aid from a philanthropic foundation funded by Babakar’s evil ex-employer), but also the sympathetic white women in his life. Lupin is not a fantasy about racism and reparations, but a psychologically revealing fairytale about assimilation.
The French, to paint a broad brushstroke, tend to reject the idea of “communautarisme” or a sense of solidarity within racial groups. Demographic numbers do not acknowledge race or ethnicity according to the logic that acknowledging the social reality of race would bolster the bigotry of race science. The effect is that any Black, Brown, Asian, or otherwise ethnically othered person in France who does not work to blend into the country’s dominant, primarily white and still quite bourgeois society is outcast to varying degrees. If your accent is not standard—if you do not dress in the typical fashions, don’t eat the accepted foods, did not go to the right schools, display devotion to non-Christian religions in public, or fail to comport yourself with the right balance of propriety and assertiveness—well, anything unsavory anyone says or does to you is probably your fault. Obviously, not everyone in the country thinks the same way, but turn on any major French television talk show, and this worldview will be touted as superior, enlightened. Likely, one French public intellectual of West or North African descent will be brought on to refute it before they are shouted down.
Filmmaker Amandine Gay focused on France and Belgium’s particular forms of passive-aggresive racism in her self-funded documentary film Ouvrir la voix (Speak Up), and journalist and author Rokahya Diallo has devoted much of her career to challenging dominant views in the country about race and assimilation. But generally speaking, the widely applied tenants of laïcité, the French secularist division between public and private (especially religious) life, have stuck. Lupin, for all of its focus on racism and injustice, individualizes Diop’s problems and offers assimilation as a salve to the subservience French society requires of non-white people. After losing his father—the circumstances of Babakar’s death are mostly revealed in part one—an anonymous donor (who turns out to be Pelligrini’s wife) pays for a young Diop (played by Mamadou Haidara) to go to a fancy school. He befriends a beautiful classmate Claire (Ludmilla Makowski as a child and Ludivine Sagnier as an adult); as he comes into his own, he also carries on an affair with Pelligrini’s daughter Juliette (Clotilde Hesme). Far be it for me to demand that Sy has a Black girlfriend in the series, but in part two, nary a Black woman appears. The intellectuals Diop employs throughout both seasons of the show, from his childhood best friend Benjamin (Antoine Guoy) to washed-up journalist Fabienne Beriot (Anne Benoît) and more, are white. And seemingly the only other Black people Diop has ever known are his dead father and his mixed race son, Raoul. Black people do not figure into Diop’s life beyond his blood relation to them; it’s an odd construction that only makes sense because the series itself is not only invested in assimilation as a tool for revenge, but Blackness as a form of invisibility—“color blindness” as it were. If Diop were to have Black friends, lovers, or associates, he would be seen. Lupin doesn’t seem interested in that collective form of visibility, but rather in the kind you get by putting one Black character front and center on a Netflix show.
Part two is medium-blood-pressure fun. Sy dazzles, slipping in and out of disguise, smirking mischievously, and evading a frustratingly obtuse cop, Lieutenant Sofia Belkacem (Shirine Boutella) while slowly converting a much more savvy one, Youssef Guedira (Soufiane Guerrab), to his side. It’s interesting here that the representative puzzle of the show casts French people of North African descent as police, protectors of the government and inadvertently (or not) of the absurdly wealthy who indirectly preside over said government. Even the showrunners can’t figure out whether they want cops to be effective or not, offering Belkacem and Guedira an overwritten easy-out in rooting out corruption in their own ranks. Lupin is a breezy show whose comforting bedtime story politics have their own twisted logic in a Western world that increasingly confuses tokenization for reparation. Still, its calculations will be more than enough for most audiences worldwide, who understandably thirst for stylish and elaborate heists on screen.
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