War movies don’t vary much. Customarily, this genre has a singular focus: examination of an individual (a soldier, usually) inside of a system (the military, usually). Wherever the film goes from there, it can typically still be traced back to that configuration of a singular unit as part of the greater whole. The individual is entrenched — to nick a military phrase — within the system, even if the premise of the film is to have that character reconcile with or refute the system itself. And in some ways this is technically true of Beau travail, the 1999 drama by Claire Denis, as it follows young soldiers training inside the construct of the French Foreign Legion. But the treatment of those individuals and that system is so unlike that which is described above, so unique in its presentation, that Beau travail can hardly be called a war film at all.
Unit master-at-arms Galoup (Denis Lavant) leads a section of legionnaires stationed in Djibouti, driving them through a regimen of intense and endless physical training. The legionnaires climb, hurdle, and crawl beneath crude obstacles. They stand for hours with their arms raised under the hot African sun. They iron their uniforms a lot, the sharp creases a signifier of their shared devotion. Galoup undertakes these exercises with his men, screeching at them as he does his own pushups twice as quickly. He is the Legion, in some senses: a lifelong military man, minded only toward the group, toward uniformity, toward the system.
Continue reading Beau travail (1999)
As a White Dude with a full deck of privilege and a shitload of unlearning to do when it comes to an effort at anti-racism, I acknowledge that there’s always going to be imperfection, at best, in my understanding of the Black Experience. Too many people like me use that as an excuse to not even try, of course, preferring the comfort of a bubble in which ignoring racism is hardly ever recognized in and of itself as a racist act. As a White Dude, part of me resides inextricably in this bubble regardless of my physical location. There’s quite an echo in here. And while I do recognize that ignoring racism is itself a contribution to racism — of course it is — I’m still undoubtedly one of those unthinking contributors. And admitting this puts me no closer to our aforementioned understanding. Nine out of ten attempts to place myself outside of the bubble are too weak to even perforate it, and the tenth is a noble failure.
Amongst those measures of not-enough is the discovery, experience, discussion and championing of Black Art. This is too easy and not impactful enough to be considered “putting in the work” for us White Dudes, or to count as allyship in any meaningful sense. So I’m gonna sound really, really desperate to make a grand point here when I turn heel to assert that it’s also not nothing, because not nothing is hardly the bar we should be striving to clear. But when discovering, experiencing, discussing and championing something as vital as Mangrove, even this most passive engagement can result in challenging questions of the sort that are typically drowned out in the din of the benighted bubble.
Continue reading Small Axe: Mangrove (2020)