A fuss over race has soured the release of the latest film in which Gérard Depardieu takes on one of the giants of French history. Black actors and anti-racism campaigners are upset that the white star is cast as Alexandre Dumas, the country's biggest national hero with mixed blood.
The blonde, blue-eyed Depardieu sports curly hair and darker skin in L'Autre Dumas [trailer here], directed by Safy Nebbou. Dumas, who is still probably the world's best-loved French author, was an exuberant, high-living celebrity -- like Depardieu. His paternal grandmother was a former Haitian slave. His father, a Napoleonic-era general, was deemed to be a Caribbean "negro". In his lifetime, the novelist was mocked for his African features and he called himself "un nègre".
The film, which opened to good reviews last week, tells an imagined story about Dumas' relations in the mid-19th century with Auguste Maquet, the anonymous assistant who is credited with plotting and drafting part or much of the Count of Monte Cristo and the Three Musketeers trilogy.
Non-white celebrities, some Dumas experts and black organisations are angry because they say that the producers missed a chance to celebrate France's ethnic diversity and remind the world of the writer's part black origins.
"There is a mechanism of permanent discrimination by silence," said Jacques Martial, a black actor who made his name playing a television police detective. Patrick Lozès, President of the Council of Black Associations (CRAN) wondered: "In 150 years time, could the role of Barack Obama be played in a film by a white actor with a fuzzy wig? Can Martin Luther King be played by a white?"
Sonia Rolland, an actress who is part-Rwandan and a former Miss France, said: "Dumas had quite African features. In this film, they are hiding his history, blacking him up and putting curls on a Gaulish head. In the midst of our debate on national identity, it seems that no-one is shocked apart from a few blacks and half-casts."
In a protest on the internet, the CRAN said that the casting of Depardieu was fresh evidence of France's failure to promote non-white stars in its cinema and media. "Very few of our compatriots know that Alexandre Dumas was mixed race and considered to be a black in his lifetime," it said.
The film commits a double sin in the CRAN's eyes because its plot, adapted from a successful play, discredits Dumas' genius by depicting his white assistant as the true creator of his works. "Possibly for commercial reasons, they are white-washing Dumas in order to blacken him further," it said.
That argument is all the more piquant in French because nègre remains the standard word in the language for ghost-writer or literary collaborator. In the film, Maquet is played by Benoît Poelvoorde, a Belgian star.
The film's makers are arguing that Depardieu was the ideal fit for the novelist, whose works have been turned into 200 films since 1898. Not only had the actor played Dumas' heroes, but his wild-man, larger-than-life personality resembles that of the novelist.
"The vividness [truculence. please suggest better translation] of Depardieu is the perfect embodiment of Dumas," said Frank Le Wita, the producer. "The subject is not le nègre, but la nègritude (ghost-writing) in literature". Safy Nebbou, 41, the director and of mixed race himself, noted that Dumas had been a quadroon, one quarter black. "It would have been an historic error to have chosen a métisse (mixed-blood) actor... He had blue eyes like Depardieu." But Nebbou conceded that "France is enormously behind the Anglo-Saxons in the matter of actors from other ethnic backgrounds in the cinema and advertising."
As well as stirring controversy over its casting, the film is also annoying some Dumas fans with its promotion of the relatively recent thesis that the unassuming Maquet, and Dumas' other assistants, should receive much more credit for the swashbuckling adventures that captivated the 19th century.
Dumas' Wikipedia entry (yes, sorry) contains a quote in which Dumas replied to a taunt about being black. "My father was a mulatto, my grandfather was a Negro, and my great-grandfather a monkey. You see, Sir, my family starts where yours ends."
On Thursday this week, President Sarkozy is going to drop into Haiti for a few hours. He will be the first French President ever to visit the former colony of Saint Domingue, once known as France's "pearl of the Antilles."