A few years ago, the lack of non-white faces in the Hollywood Oscar nominations was a matter of major controversy. This year, a film with only black faces, Moonlight, was the winner.African-American themes also featured in several other nominated films, including Fences (family drama), Hidden Figures (women computer programmers) and Loving (inter-racial marriage).
Since then Get Out, a horror parody, has arrived, though Birth of a Nation (slavery) has yet to appear. Away from Hollywood, Queen of Katwe and A United Kingdom both
had cinema releases, while the African Film Festival in April had no fewer than 10 features.
Naturally, the colonial period features heavily in some of these. Monsieur Chocolat (Transmission) is from France and is based on the life story of Rafael Padilla, a Cuban-born slave, who unexpectedly became a star clown in the Paris of the Belle Epoque.
He is first seen performing in a small country circus in the North of France by an English clown and acrobat, George Foottit (in reality, it was another English clown who first teamed with Chocolat).
As Foottit and Chocolat they were famous variety entertainers for two decades at the turn of the 20th century. In French parlance they played the roles of clown blanc
(white or sad clown) and auguste (happy or foolish). The success of their pairing plays on their racial and physical disparities.
Chocolat (Omar Sy) is a giant alongside the diminutive Foottit (James Thiérrée). Both actors are well known to French audiences and some foreign ones as well.
France-born and of Senegalese descent, Sy was the unstoppable force in the comedy The Intouchables and has appeared in Hollywood blockbusters such as Jurassic
World and X-Men: Days of Future Past.
Thiérrée is the grandson of Charlie Chaplin. His surrealistic circus acts and theatre performances are recognised as among the best in the world.
The story tracks the rise and fall of their careers based on longstanding clown routines but with blatantly racist overtones.
The drama heightens as Chocolat resists his characterisation while Foottit insists the formula is what makes them successful.
Chocolat achieves fame and fortune unknown to his race in those days. But he also succumbs easily to temptations that this brings. He literally gambles his life away with
the help of drink and drugs, but not before he attempts a career change to act as the lead in Shakespeare’s Othello.
Two women are featured – a circus performer (Alice de Lencquesaing), who seeks his attentions, and a widowed nurse (Clotilde Hesme), who becomes his partner until his
death in 1917, just 20 years after he first achieved fame.
Director Roschdy Zem is an actor with three other feature credits. He and the screenwriters, including Cyril Gely (Diplomacy), inject much authenticity into the period, though the racial themes are imbued more with today’s sensibilities than those
based on accounts of the time.
That is understandable, but it leaves gaps in explaining the full reasons behind Chocolat’s decline into penury and the context of his breakup with Foottit.
Rating: Mature audiences. 120 mins.