District B13: With surprise action heroine!

“Okay,” I say to my husband, “I lined up the Netflix queue with a few things that are NOT for Heroine Content. I need a break.”

“Sounds good,” he says.

“The next thing coming is District B13. That’s great, I won’t have to review it.”

“Assuredly not.”

So one night after the kiddo is in bed, I relax on the couch for a night of notetaking-free entertainment. Some French guy with spiky hair destroys a bunch of heroin in a bathtub to mess with the local drug lord. So far, so good. There’s some jumping around on and off buildings, very entertaining. The drug lord sends minions to capture spiky-haired guy’s sister. Well, yeah, when your sister works at the local grocery store she’s pretty accessible for kidnapping. Especially when your neighborhood has a giant fuck-off wall around it and no one’s allowed to leave.

Sister, whose name is Lola, is not happy about being kidnapped. Lola does not seem intimidated by the room full of threatening underlings. Not one bit. Now spiky-haired guy is coming to get Lola. She’s not crying. She’s not even the least bit nervous. She gets a gun to go with her nerves of steel, then brother and sister fall effortlessly in tandem and they’re getting the hell out of there.

Kind of blew my whole “just relax, there will be no quiz” vibe.

Lola, played by Dany Verissimo, did not have a big role in this film. She was the only woman with a speaking part that I can recall, too, so in that regard this is a typical action film. If typical action films were full of French people. And white drug dealers. But y’all, I loved Lola. She didn’t start the war, but she’s backing her brother all the way, and she’s not afraid of a fight.

Lola is kidnapped. Twice. Her second kidnapping starts a chain of events that brings her brother Leïto (parkour master David Belle) back into their home/prison/war zone with an idealistic cop from the outside, on a mission to bring down drug dealer Taha. With a setup like that, it’s hard not to think “fridged much?” but that’s not the score here. Leïto was already on the warpath against Taha. You don’t pour cleaning chemicals over that much heroin without being ready to rumble. Lola’s abduction isn’t done to give her brother an impetus to action, it was just adding insult to injury, where injury is the destruction of his neighborhood from outside and inside both.

While held captive, Lola is turned into Taha’s pet junkie, leash and all. In plenty of other films, this would have been taken as an opportunity to show her sexually degraded, assaulted, and otherwise abused. Graphically. In District B13, it’s not. You see her on the floor, totally out of it, with a dirty face and messy hair. I think she’s even wearing the same clothes, just badly rumpled and a little torn? The difference between Lola before and Lola now is so striking, the filmmakers don’t need to give the audience a bunch of abuse scenes to make their point.

When she comes down out of her last high and wakes up, she’s chained up on a rooftop with a rocket and a can of gasoline nearby. She looks at the rocket, the gasoline. She has a matchbook hidden in her shirt pocket. And she thinks “Allright, let’s do this thing.”

I like that in a girl.

I’m not going to spoil the bit after the rocket, gasoline, and matchbook, but the end of that scene was a pleasant surprise too.

And I really love this shot.

Here’s my issue, though. A film about the abandonment and militarization of poor neighborhoods in France… stars three heroic white people [update 1/21/11, see comments to this post for more info on Dany Verissimo.] I’m not saying all poor neighborhoods in France are inhabited by people of color, far from it. But if you know much at all about modern-day France, you know there’s a significant amount of tension between mainstream white “secular” French culture and immigrant populations who are mostly people of color, and many of whom are Muslim. Riots in 2005 and 2007 were in part triggered by this tension, and by a lack of economic opportunities for youth due partly to discrimination. The reality of ghettoized, stigmatized neighborhoods in France isn’t just a bunch of white people segregating a bunch of other white people into specific neighborhoods. It’s racism and xenophobia. If someone made a film about Cabrini-Green in Chicago being walled off by the military, it would be a little off for all the protagonists to be white, and I’m pretty sure this is the same thing. Critiquing a social issue by misrepresenting the populations involved distorts the sins being committed and in this case, lets the perpetrators off the hook easier IMHO. No need for the audience to confront racism here, and a lost opportunity to critique it. It’s just some bad guys being mean for no particular reason.

If you’re knowledgeable about the French situation, please correct me if I’m misunderstanding anything.

So I’m going with three stars. Small role for Lola, big impact. However, wish for a little less whitewashing.

This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.

5 thoughts on “District B13: With surprise action heroine!

  1. Theora23

    I didn’t immediately read Leïto and Lola as white; to me they looked mixed / racially ambiguous in that Jennifer Beals kind of way. Also, Taha is an Arabic name and the actor playing him is Algerian and French, so I’m not sure how white that ought to make the character. I suspect that in France, he’s not, which makes for a different complication with regard to race.

  2. Skye

    @ p.w. I definitely enjoyed the action aspect – though I had anticipated parkour as looking more different from standard chasing and jumping.

    @ Theora23, I also had suspicions about the backgrounds of the actors playing Leito and Lola, but couldn’t find anything online to support either of them being people of color. They do look more ambiguous than, say, the cop, but still. As far as Taha the drug dealer, who is the other major character, the name and the actor’s background was undoubtedly deliberate. : (

  3. Skye

    @ dreaded rhubarb, I have NO idea how in searching for info about her, I didn’t get to her Wikipedia page. That’s embarrassing.

    Especially because it’s the first Google search return. WTF me?

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