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ReThink Review: The Intouchables - France's 'Magic Negro,' or Something More?

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The "Magic Negro" and "White Savior" film genres say a lot about race in America as we inch towards a truly post-racial age (and no, it didn't start with the election of Barack Obama). In case you haven't heard of them, Magic Negro movies (The Green Mile, Driving Miss Daisy, The Legend of Bagger Vance) are ones where a saintly black person dedicates him/herself to helping a white person in need by dispensing profound yet folksy/street-smart wisdom or, in some cases, by using magic powers. White Savior films (Dangerous Minds, The Blind Side, The Help) are ones where a saintly white person appears to save brown people in need, often from themselves and their lack of education or self esteem.

While these films are often corny and saccharine at best or condescending and racist at worst, they technically come from a good place. Magic Negro films seem to come from filmmakers who want desperately to show how much they like black people, yet they know so few actual black people that they end up creating idealized, unrealistic caricatures. White Savior films are also meant to show how much the (probably white) filmmakers like brown people by showing how much they want to help them, but this often makes it seem that what brown people really need to improve their lives is for the right benevolent white person to come along.

From the ads and trailers, the critically acclaimed award-winning French film The Intouchables certainly seems to be of the Magic Negro ilk. Omar Sy plays Driss, a tough young Senegalese man from the Paris projects who's hired by a wealthy quadriplegic man named Philippe (Francois Cluzet) to be his caregiver -- and in the process, helps Philippe to loosen up and embrace life. But by making Driss and Philippe fully realized characters (the film is based on a true story) with histories and lots to learn about life and each other, The Intouchables manages to escape the trappings of the Magic Negro genre to be a film about an unlikely but wonderful friendship between actual humans. Watch my ReThink Review of The Intouchables below (transcript following).

Transcript:
The award-winning French film The Intouchables is based on a true story of a wealthy quadriplegic man who hires a tough, inexperienced guy from the mean streets to be his caregiver. From looking at the poster or watching the trailer, you'd probably guess that The Intouchables is yet another shameful entry in what has become known as the "Magic Negro" genre, which includes films like The Legend of Baggar Vance, The Green Mile, and, of course, Driving Miss Daisy. In these films, benevolent, relatively personality-free black people materialize to solve all the problems of a white person in need -- sometimes using actual magic -- while teaching the hapless Caucasian what life is really about, which often involves dancing. While The Intouchables certainly has some of these elements, it rises far above the cloying clichés of the Magic Negro genre with its sincerity, humor, and its insistence that its two main characters are real people, not caricatures, who both have a lot to learn from each other.

Francois Cluzet plays Philippe, who was paralyzed in a hang-gliding accident and now lives in a Parisian mansion attended by nervous servants. While interviewing new caregivers, Philippe meets Driss, a young Senegalese man played by Omar Sy who's only applying for the job so he can get his unemployment check. Impressed by Driss' bluntness and lack of sympathy, Philippe hires Driss and moves him into his mansion, where Driss reluctantly learns his duties from the housemistress (played by Anne Le Ny) and Philippe's assistant (played by Audrey Fleurot) who Driss hits on relentlessly.

What keeps The Intouchables out of magic negro territory is the fact that Driss is really not there to solve Philippe's problems. The job is, at first, simply a matter of convenience since Driss has just been kicked out of his home in the Paris projects, and with his lack of caregiving experience, he objects to a lot of the duties he's assigned to do. His advice to Philippe about loosening up -- which includes getting Philippe to smoke pot, be more forward with a woman he's been exchanging love letters with, and to use Philippe's sports car instead of a more wheelchair-friendly van -- is more based on the fact that Driss is a young guy, not from any profound wisdom. And, as mentioned, Driss is a fully-realized character who gets equal screentime with Philippe, as we learn about Driss' tense family life and his efforts to keep one of his siblings out of trouble with a gang.

And while Driss does help Philippe embrace life beyond his disability, including a scene where Driss gets uptight white people at Philippe's birthday party to boogie down to Earth, Wind, and Fire, it's not a one-way exchange. Through working with and spending time with Philippe, Driss surprises himself by becoming a much more caring and responsible person, realizing that there's a bigger world out there and he has potential beyond hanging out and smoking weed with his friends.

But in the end, The Intouchables is a funny, smart, intimate, and genuine story of an unlikely but beautiful friendship, with terrific performances by Sy, Cluzet, and all the supporting cast. And on a personal note, The Intouchables really touched me since I used to work as a caregiver, first for my grandparents and then for other senior citizens, and I know what an amazing relationship that can be. Caregiving tends to be a female-dominated profession, and one of the people I took care of was a man. After years of women taking care of him, I could tell he was relieved and grateful to finally have a guy he could talk to about his youthful exploits, and it was an honor and a privilege to be the last person he told those things before he died. The Intouchables is a wonderful film that you should definitely see, and since there's word that there's going to be an American remake of it, I recommend that you catch the original now in case the new version is yet another magic negro tale that you should rightfully avoid.

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