THE INTOUCHABLES: THE RETURN OF THE MAGICAL NEGRO

I went to the movies last night. I thought I was going to see a French film, but what I saw was a typical Hollywood movie.

The Intouchables, while it is a French language film and set in Paris, is little more than an American Hollywood movie that recycles the overused trope of the magical Negro or, as Spike Lee dubbed him; “the super-duper magical Negro”.

Phillipe, a rich white guy, is a paraplegic who needs a helper. He takes a chance on Driss, a young black man from the street. Of course, in line with the magical Negro trope, what Phillipe needs is not a helper but to get back in touch with his mojo. As a paraplegic he is literally divorced from his own sexuality, but he is also emotionally uptight. It is up to the street savvy Driss to get him in touch with his “earthier” self. Driss re-introduces Phillipe to Rock and Roll, hookers, weed and fast cars.

The thing about this movie, and it shouldn’t be surprising, is how popular it is with older white audiences. This film got rave reviews around the office. As we were leaving the theater I heard an older gentleman remark: “You don’t need fake old Hollywood to have a good movie.”

Honestly, he couldn’t be more wrong.

Despite its Gallic provenance, The Intouchables is a Hollywood movie of the worse “feel good” variety. On the surface it seems very sympathetic to the black characters, but the subtext is very dismissive of the black culture. Driss is better off after he is removed from his dysfunctional, complicated family life. His young brother/cousin is in bad street trouble and Driss is ineffective as an authority figure. It is only after he has been exposed to the rarified atmosphere of rich white society that he is able to extricate his young cousin from that existence.

I this respects it falls in line with one of the more troubling aspects of the magical negro trope, in that it allows white audiences to like the singular black character but not the black society as a whole.

And Driss’s purpose in Phillipe’s life is to help him come to terms with his disability and to get a date.

Seriously?

Don’t be fooled by the French actors, the Paris backdrop or the subtitles. And don’t be fooled by the “Based on a True Story” label either. That doesn’t matter. (Some of the most dishonest films are based on true stories).The Intouchables is an American Hollywood by-the-numbers movie. It is a big-screen riff on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. One might as well wait for the inevitable American remake starring Robert Deniro and Will Smith.

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