And the winner is… Omar Sy! Two days before the beloved and much-heralded Viola Davis lost to Meryl Streep at the Oscars, France’s annual César Awards presented a Best Actor statuette to a Black man for the first time in its 37-year history. Thirty-four-year-old Omar Sy (pronounced 'see')—born in Trappes, France, to Senegalese parents—starred as an ex-con-turned-orderly in last year’s French dramatic comedy, Intouchables (already the second-highest grossing film in French cinematic history). Famed film producer Harvey Weinstein bought American remake rights to this Trading Places-like story while it spent ten straight weeks as France’s number one movie last fall.
Still, Sy’s win is as bittersweet for French folks of color as Viola Davis winning an Oscar for playing a maid in The Help would have been to African-Americans.
New York City’s annual Rendez-Vous with French Cinema festival leads off March 1 with a screening of Intouchables. The Oscars just awarded French actor Jean Dujardin its Best Actor statue for The Artist, but Omar Sy beat out even Dujardin at the Césars in their own nation. Like Sidney Poitier in Lillies of the Field or Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball, Omar Sy winning his country’s top acting award should be an historical moment of triumph for the diaspora. The problem is the role.
Variety magazine complained from the beginning that Intouchables “flings about the kind of Uncle Tom racism one hopes has permanently exited American screens.” Omar Sy stars as Driss, fresh out of prison and living in the projects, who scores a gig caring for a wealthy quadriplegic named Philippe. Americans already gorged on this sort of racial/racist buddy flick back in the 1980s (48 Hours, the Fat Boys’ Disorderlies). So we’ve seen it before: Philippe exposes lower-class Driss to high culture, while Driss loosens up Philippe in ways only a magical Negro can—blasting “Boogie Wonderland” up in the mansion, for example. Intouchables doesn’t hit America till May, but if even Variety describes Driss as “nothing but a performing monkey (with all the racist associations of such a term) teaching the stuck-up white folk how to get ‘down’,” the film won’t go over here nearly as well at all.
For his part, Omar Sy already declined an invite to the French White House (Palais de l’ Élysée) from neo-conservative French president Nicolas Sarkozy, who reportedly loves the film. A lot of African-Americans might straightaway judge Sy’s politics because of the fact that he has a White wife, Hélène, but the César winner cracked jokes with the media at the French establishment’s expense immediately after his historic win.
Known mainly for his Jerky Boys-like phone improvisations on the Canal+ channel’s long-running variety show Omar et Fred, Sy has been acting since the 2001 comedy, La Tour Montparnasse Infernale. Since the success of Intouchables, he’s been voted France’s third-loved public personality (behind two other celebrities of color, interestingly enough: tennis VIP Yannich Noah and soccer superstar Zinédine Zidane). Intouchables already has its American detractors, but most black French people love the film just for showing a super-rare reflection of themselves at their local cinema.
Female director Euzhan Palcy of Martinique earned the first César presented to someone black and French for 1983’s Sugar Cane Alley. The African actor Isaach de Bankolé, husband to jazz singer Cassandra Wilson, nabbed the Most Promising Actor award at the 1987 Césars for his role in Black Mic Mac. But Bankolé and Omar Sy are the only two black actors to have won major Césars, ever. (In it's 84 year history, the Academy Awards has merely given out 12 to African-Americans, including newbie Octavia Spencer.) Last year, France produced a comedy about slavery (!) entitled Case Départ, about two French-Africans getting displaced in time back to slavery days. Having lived there for the past seven years, I’ll attest firsthand that France can be neurotic when it comes to race. No official statistics are taken about the racial makeup of the country, and portrayals of blacks in the media recall nothing less than Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. But like Viola Davis’s thwarted Oscar win, Omar Sy’s César victory should at least help present and future black actors break through racial barriers. For that alone, a muted “bravo” is due.