‘Les Misérables’ Review: Speaking Truth to Power through Film

There is no doubt that we are going through a massive period of change in this country. Whether you agree or disagree with the way people have expressed their anger, it can’t be denied that there are systemic problems with policing, particularly of black men, not only in America but also worldwide. At times such as these, a lack of awareness on the issues and what they mean to people should be avoided at all costs. While certainly not the sole way people should be educating themselves, film, even fiction film, can serve as a rallying cry and a powerful statement of the circumstances of peoples’ lives, and that is exactly what 2019’s Les Misérables does.

This film is the directorial debut of French filmmaker Ladj Ly, based on a short film of his which was released in 2017. Potential viewers should be warned that the film is entirely in French, and those that do not enjoy subtitles should steer clear, even though they’re missing out on a quality film. Additionally, do not let the name of the film mislead you, as it has nothing with Victor Hugo’s novel or the numerous subsequent adaptations, apart from the fact that both take place in the same area of Paris.

The film has a very documentary feel, which works well with the film’s limited budget. There’s a near-constant orange hue to the film, giving it a very unique and earthy visual style. This style helps inform the film’s gritty and somber plot, which, while being somewhat straightforward and at times predictable, is nevertheless extremely effective and powerful. The film follows an ensemble of characters, mainly centering around a French police officer on his first day with the Paris police, and a young boy living in the slums who comes into possession of a lion cub, which ultimately leads to disastrous consequences. Without giving away too many spoilers, know that the film paints a harrowing picture of life as a young black man in Paris, which builds to a genuinely suspenseful conclusion. What makes this film particularly powerful is the truth behind it.

While ultimately a fiction film, the story is loosely based on an event of police brutality that director Ly once observed. This film illustrates the grim reality of abuse of power on the part of the police, and anyone seeking to learn more about the struggles that people face from police brutality would benefit from watching this film, as many of the events in the movie also occur in real life, and frighteningly more than people realize. The film also purposes some explanations as to why police brutality can occur. Multiple times throughout the scenes following police it is emphasized that police are encouraged to maintain solidarity amongst officers, and this encouragement shows how even “good cops” can become complicit in extreme abuses of power and police brutality. Ultimately, powerful subtext and important, global social issues combine with a somewhat predictable but incredibly well told plot to result in a film that will be very much appreciated by film-goers and activists alike.