If I favorably compare a movie to Fort Apache, The Bronx, you ought to pay attention, because I don’t do it very often. That 1981 Paul Newman drama was a chaotic swirl of wrongdoing in and around a besieged Bronx police precinct that made earlier police dramas look like Disney movies. A first-time filmmaker named Ladj Ly — born in Mali, raised in Paris — has devised a devastating successor set among the graffiti-scarred housing projects in Montfermeil, outside Paris. Audaciously, ambitiously, and a bit waspishly, Ly has entitled his film Les Misérables: A scene from Victor Hugo’s novel is set there, and a school in town is named for Hugo. In its narrative power, in its appreciation of detail, and in its moral complexity, Les Misérables is clearly superior to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, to which it bears a resemblance. Yet it’d be unfair to Ly to characterize the film as simply a serious dramatization of social issues; it’s also fast-paced entertainment, with a plot that has so many crazy twists it reminded me of the 2017 Queens odyssey Good Time, one of the finest crime dramas of recent years.
French-language cinema these days has become clouded with miserabilism (the films of the Belgian brothers Luc and Jean-Pierre Dardenne, in particular, scintillatingly evoke the experience of watching fungus grow). Despite its title, Les Misérables isn’t like that; it’s a punchy and exciting day-on-the-beat story of a newbie cop, Stéphane (Damien Bonnard), who joins two other plainclothes officers as they drive around the projects, known as “Les Bosquets,” which are filled with African immigrants and their children, many of them Muslim. As Stéphane rides in the back of an unmarked car, the driver is Gwada (Djebril Zonga), a black man who we will learn is himself a Muslim and a son of at least one African immigrant. In the passenger seat is Chris (Alexis Manenti), one of those seen-it-all white cops, who takes a dim view of humanity in general and relentlessly goads his new partner Stéphane in a tone that’s meant to be jokey but is really just nasty.
Nevertheless, in an early scene, Chris amiably chats up a resident of the projects who has just gotten out of prison — where Chris himself placed him, having arrested him many times. It’s striking how there seem to be no hard feelings on either side; Chris notes that locking up the man was all part of the job, and the man agrees. They part ways with a friendly handshake, and when the ex-con departs, Chris bets his partner he’ll be locking the guy up again soon. Is Chris a good guy or a raging jerk? It’s complicated. Everything in this movie is complicated. As with David Simon’s The Wire, there is no pigeonholing anyone based on youth, race, religion, or whether he’s got a badge. Filmmakers used to err in the direction of cheering on white men in positions of authority, then became too deterministic in the opposite direction, setting up police as a racist occupying force and impoverished minorities as hapless victims of their cruelty. Yet Ly takes humanity on a wary, case-by-case basis. Wherever he turns his eye, he might find a seam of honor or savagery. The cops behave badly, but so do the kids in the projects, who needlessly antagonize them and bear substantial blame for turning up the temperature as the film goes on. Almost everyone here is morally stained in some way, but at the same time no one seems motivated by pure malevolence either.
Here I’ll just point out another difference between Lee and his homonym Ly: Lee is a tourist. Ly isn’t. Lee grew up middle class, in a nice part of Brooklyn, a world apart from Bedford-Stuyvesant, where Do the Right Thing is set. Ly actually did grow up in Montfermeil. Although Ly has been open about framing this film as a response to the 2005 Paris riots and for urging more-just treatment for those who live in cités such as Montfermeil, he also rigorously avoids the traps of message movies and their lazy schematics. Those who roll into this film expecting affirmation of progressive clichés — “Ah, clearly the problem is racism, now let’s all go out for a coupe” — will be sorely frustrated by the actions of the black cop. Those who think character exists independent of environment will be frustrated too. Ly is in his early forties, unusually mature for a first-time filmmaker. That he is driven by experience, rather than merely an agenda, is evident.