Banlieusards (Kery James and Leïla Sy, 2019) – Full Original – Coming of Age Drama
Street Flow tells the story of three brothers growing up in a banlieue, a public housing project in the Parisian suburbs. The brothers – whose parents emigrated to France from Mali – are Demba (Kery James), a powerful local drug dealer; Soulaymaan (Jammeh Diangana), a law student at a prestigious university; and Noumouké (Bakary Diombera), a troubled high school student who is at a crossroads, having to choose between a life of crime or keeping on the straight and narrow like Soulaymaan. Soulaymaan for his part feels conflicted between caring for his family and his aspirations towards middle-class Parisian life, as symbolized by his burgeoning romance with classmate Lisa (Chloé Jouannet), a white woman from one of Paris’s more affluent districts.
In one of the more surprising moments in Netflix’s recent wave of self-reporting of statistics on its film and series, French executive Marie-Laure Daridan announced during a press junket in Dijon that Street Flow was amongst the company’s most successful French films ever, with over 2.6 million views in its first week on the service.
If the figures are to be believed, the film, one of the few French films that Netflix agreed to finance before shooting started, has tapped into something in French and/or global youth culture. Perhaps it was the drawing power of Kery James, the film’s celebrity writer/co-director/star and composer, who is an established star in the French rap scene. Or maybe it was the film’s themes of marginalized youth alienated from mainstream society, themes which remain depressingly urgent as European and North American countries fail to offer immigrants and poor young people the kinds of lives they have long promised them. Either way, it is great to see that audiences are connecting with the film.
I say this in spite of the fact that I personally wasn’t into it. For me, Street Flow is a lot like other inner-city dramas on Netflix such as Roxanne Roxanne or fellow banlieue film Bad Seeds in that it is well-intentioned but not altogether well-executed. The film is plagued by some bad acting, particularly in the more minor roles, and poor execution of action scenes in particular. The writing is didactic and heavy-handed throughout, particularly in the case of the debate that Soulaymaan and Lisa must stage over who bears responsibility for the state of the banlieues, be it the government or the inhabitants of the neighborhoods. This crude writing is part of a general melodramatic streak that runs through the film, culminating in the ne plus ultra of filmic clichés when one character’s death results in another holding their dying body and yelling “nooo!” as the camera cranes upward.
These shortcomings at the level of artistry are regrettable, but they don’t overshadow all the other good things about the film, which throughout displays an intimate knowledge of the environment that surrounds its characters. The film also contains a clever homage to Mathieu Kassovitz, the director whose La Haine remains one of the most influential banlieue films in French history, and who makes a cameo appearance in the film.
In evoking its environment so vividly, the film also reveals some interesting new talents in its young cast and its makers who show great potential even if there are some missteps. It is thus very heartening to see that co-directors Leïla Sy and Kery James seem to have formed relationships with Netflix, with the streaming service planning to feature them prominently in an upcoming media event in Paris.
With the film apparently connecting with audiences, this will be a chance for Netflix to simultaneously breaking into the French market in a way that some of its big-ticket series (such as Marseille) have failed to do, while also promoting an emerging film-maker from a minority background. In this sense, the film constitutes an interesting moment in Netflix’s ongoing adventures in European cinema. Together with Amazon’s acquisition of Les Misérables, another banlieue film made by another emerging talent from a marginalized background (writer-director Ladj Ly) and an all-around great film, we can see the two biggest SVOD players helping to draw the world’s attention to the banlieue, complete with its complex problems as well as its many talented artists.
While none of the film’s main creatives had a relationship with Netflix before the film was made, as mentioned above, it seems like Sy and James have formed one. I for one am hoping to hear of another Netflix project being in the works for the film-makers.
As mentioned above, Netflix has touted the film’s popularity in its opening week. While the company didn’t specify where the views were coming from, reading between the lines it seems like many of them came from France. In the event in Dijon where Netflix Daridan announced the figure, she also mentioned that another French film (The Wolf’s Call) was an example of a French film that was having global success outside of the country. This tidbit, when paired with the disclosure that Street Flow was so popular in its first week, seems to imply that the films was a hit in France. This would make sense given Kery James’s celebrity as a rapper as well as the great deal of publicity that James and Sy did for the film in the French market.
Besides its onscreen representation of the African and Arab communities within the banlieues, the film was also written and directed by black film-makers, each of whom were making their debut features.
Difficult Subject Matter
Kery James has been outspoken about the difficulties he faced raising the money needed to get the film made and distributed and has said that the film wouldn’t have existed if not for Netflix. While there are many films that have been made about the banlieues in that country, these remain difficult to market effectively and so Netflix should be recognized for its courage in backing the project, particularly with unproven talents as its main creatives.
Netflix has frequently been supportive of projects with the kinds of themes and representations seen in Street Flow. One of its first acquisitions from France was Divines, a film set amongst the banlieue and the Roma communities in Paris. Other examples include The World is Yours, The Climb, the aforementioned Bad Seeds, and others.