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Radical History Review 83 (2002) 186-192
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Teaching Radical History
The Colonial Casbah on the Silver Screen:
Using Pépé le Moko and The Battle of Algiers to Teach Colonialism, Race, and Globalization in French History
Michael G. Vann
Teaching history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, I encounter many students who are aware of (and often very well informed about) issues of social justice, racism, and globalization. However, most of my students do not expect to consider such subjects in a survey of twentieth-century French history. In a class of some thirty students—equally divided between a third history majors, a third French literature or language majors, and a third representing everything from politics to computer sciences majors—my syllabus often comes as a shock to them. I present them with a series of texts that foreground intense social conflicts in the narrative of French history. These conflicts include labor activism, gender disputes, and the development and bitter legacy of fascism. My course calls special attention to the histories of colonialism and race, allowing my students to gain insight into French, European, and global issues of race and social justice by studying subjects traditionally ignored or marginalized in French history. To teach these subjects, I utilize two films, Pépé Le Moko and the Battle of Algiers, as well as a selection of short readings including a political and theoretical essay by Frantz Fanon, a contemporary detective novel by Didier Daeninckx, and Panivong Norindr's postcolonial film criticism. 1 [End Page 186]
When teaching my "History of Twentieth-Century France," I take to heart Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler's call to tear down the artificial divide between the colonial and the metropolitan world. 2 While their essay considers a new research agenda in empire studies, their message has clear and direct implications for the teaching of colonial and racial history. If we, as historians, recognize the world-historical importance of European colonial conquest in the late nineteenth century, the brutal and exploitative nature of colonial rule in the twentieth century, and the intensely bitter and violent character of the wars of decolonization, we must integrate the history of the colonial empires into our European history curriculum. With historians having become increasingly aware of the globalization of capital, the essential role of colonialism as a historic phase in the development of capitalism further justifies attention spent on the colonial world. 3 But colonial history does not stand alone. Indeed, colonialism is inseparable from racism. It is impossible to disconnect European imperialism from either the development of race as an ideological construct or from the practice of racism as a system of legal exclusion and material exploitation. By erasing the imaginary divide between France's national past and France's colonial past, I teach a course that weaves the threads of colonialism and race into the established fabric of French history. Importantly, such an approach does not pigeonhole discussion of the colonies into a "colonial week," but places French imperialism on equal footing with more traditional political, social, and economic subjects.
The first film I use is Pépé le Moko, an entertaining example of both early film noir and colonial exoticism. Directed by Julien DuVivier, the film was shot in 1936. It stars Jean Gabin, one of the most recognizable faces from interwar French cinema. 4 Set in the Algerian Casbah, the plot follows the fate of a doomed antihero, the master criminal Pépé le Moko. Because of a caper gone wrong, Pépé goes into hiding and, to elude the French authorities, he seeks refuge in the Casbah. Located in the heart of French colonial Algiers, this quartier indigène or native quarter remains outside of the control of the French police. More than a place to hide, the Casbah becomes a true home for Pépé: He finds allies and accomplices in the dark and mysterious alleys; with secret gestures or whistles he commands his minions. When...