Monsieur Chocolat (M) Director: Roschdy Zem. Starring: Omar Sy, James Thierrée. 119 minutes
With 1.9 million tickets sold in France, Monsieur Chocolat is a bold period drama which takes a brutal snapshot of racial issues in the country around the turn of the 20th century.
Rafael Padilla (played here by Sy), who was most famously known as Chocolat the clown, was the first black performer to rise to fame in France. As this film shows, it was a difficult role to play at a time when non-Anglo French were either hidden away or publicly shamed.
Public shaming accompanies his rise to fame and fortune as part of a 'clown blanc and Auguste' duo — a popular theatrical device wherein the Auguste (usually black-faced) clown plays dummy to a white clown of higher intelligence who inflicts hilarious acts upon Auguste.
Experimental circus artist George Foottit (played by Charlie Chaplin's grandson, Thierrée) comes up with the routines, playing the clown blanc role expertly. It isn't long before the duo has a strong following, and the act takes Padilla from working at a lacklustre circus in the countryside — acting the absurd cannibal 'Nigger King Kalanka' to scare white people and their children — to the grandiose Nouveau Cirque in Paris. Virtually overnight, Padilla finds himself with more money and fame than he ever imagined.
And yet the differences between his King Kalanka and clown Auguste roles are far fewer than Padilla initially imagines. What he gains in applause, money, celebrity and romantic conquests, he loses in self-respect — a realisation that comes into sharp focus when, thanks to a cruel former employer, he is thrown in jail. (While Padilla managed to escape slavery — his father was a house slave in Cuba — he remained 'undocumented' and constantly terrified of being locked up.)
Padilla spends a week in prison where, amid the torture and racial abuse, he listens to the thoughts of a black revolutionary who was continually being locked up for his unrepentant stance on race issues. Padilla's continued exploitation comes coldly into view — while he is being paid better for it, he is still being used to attract crowds who like to see a black man kicked around the stage by a white man.
Malcolm X famously delineated two types of slave — the 'house Negro' and the 'field Negro' (now commonly referred to as 'house slave and field slave'). Although a 'house slave' is closer to their oppressor and receives special privileges, they are still a slave. The 'field slave' meanwhile is separated from the oppressor and is therefore more able to be awakened and revolt.
"His crystal-clear vision of the truth of his oppressor gave him agency."
Chocolat in his role as Auguste seems to be just another kind of house slave. Despite his success he is still maligned and at the mercy of masters: Foottit, Nouveau Cirque, an overwhelmingly racist audience and government. While rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous, he is routinely denigrated, by offhand comments, by advertisements portraying him as a monkey. Attention, he learns, is not the same as respect.
By contrast, when he was still a humble performer in the French countryside, his body language, and his humour at the illogic racism he encountered, indicated his relative freedom. He even toyed with common prejudices for his own amusement. His crystal-clear vision of the truth of his oppressor gave him agency.
Monsieur Chocolat also sends a message about the nature of fame, and the experience of being used up by a voracious audience and thrown away. This can happen in all forms of popular entertainment; think of the Indigenous Australian or African-American sportspeople whose talents have been exploited, without that translating into meaningful respect for the individual's race and culture.
Padilla died in poverty in 1917. But his legacy has enjoyed renewed interest thanks to Monsieur Chocolat. Ahead of the film's opening, the mayor of Paris unveiled a plaque commemorating the clown on a building where he used to perform. A film which tackles such issues so honestly is important not only for France as a multicultural nation, but for viewers in any country with a dark story of racial injustice.
Megan Graham is a Melbourne based writer.