Translingualism and Race Passing in Samba:On Fantasies of Migrant Identity in Contemporary France
With its translingual dialogue in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Serbian, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's film Samba depicts the use of languages other than French as both a hindrance and an asset for migrants in contemporary France. This article analyses how an Algerian character, Walid, engages in the practice of race passing by disguising himself as Brazilian. It draws on scholarship about the practice of race passing to analyze Walid's hybrid, translingual identity. Mapping the film against a broader study of the importance of language in French films about passing, it reveals how the shifting identities of Samba's migrant characters become sites where axes of oppression and empowerment intersect.
–Dis-moi un truc. C'est quoi, la capitale du Brésil pour toi?
THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY has seen a considerable rise in translingual cinema from France and a proliferation of films that depict multiculturalism in contemporary French society. Translingual characters are often either French-born children of migrants, or they are migrants themselves attempting to integrate into French society for the first time, either with or without the papers granting them the legal right to remain in the Hexagon. In translingual films such as Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's 2014 Samba, French remains a language of socio-cultural power that migrants must learn to survive, and those of non-white, migrant origins often experience racism, disadvantage, and even physical danger. Yet translingual cinema does not simply provide a hierarchical picture of linguistic and cultural difference, in which French and European languages are prestigious while non-Western languages are an impediment in French public life. Instead, competency in diverse languages is a potential asset that characters can use to advance their social position, conceal their illegal status or navigate hostile environments in unexpected and strategic ways.2
Despite this situation, in contemporary French cinema, characters of diverse origins often manipulate how they present themselves in public in order to gain access to status, relationships, and resources that would otherwise be closed to them.3 This manipulation leads some characters, most often of Arab descent, to 'pass into' an adopted ethnic identity. Sometimes this passing is a hegemonic act that reinforces racist hierarchies between French and Arab identities. For example, in Jean-Paul Lilienfeld's 2008 La journée de la jupe, the protagonist Sonia is ashamed of her Maghrebin background and hides it to pass as a Gallic white woman. Yet passing can also be subversive and play upon clichéd perceptions of non-white identities in France. Abdellatif Kechiche's 2001 La faute à Voltaire features a case of 'nationality passing': leaning into rather than away from perceptions of marginalization, the film's Tunisian protagonist says he is Algerian when crossing the border, to play upon the heartstrings of French border police who are perceived to feel guiltier about [End Page 94] the French colonization of Algeria than about that of Tunisia. In Jacques Audiard's 2015 Dheepan, the female Tamil protagonist Yalini begins wearing a headscarf, despite not being Muslim and despite the garment's contentious status in French society, in order to fit in with the more established immigrant group in her banlieue housing complex. And in Nakache and Toledano's Samba, the main Arab character is unable to pass physically for white, but adopts a more exotic non-white identity, that of a Brazilian migrant, to sidestep racist assumptions about Maghrebin migrants in France. Passing occurs in diverse scenarios and for myriad reasons. Yet no matter the identity these characters are hiding and the identity they are adopting, passing in these films is inextricably tied to language. Passing characters must code-switch between dialects of French, or between French and 'foreign' languages, to convince others that their presentation is authentic.4 As films such as Samba reveal, the identity one performs is inherently connected with the language one speaks.
With its translingual dialogue in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, and Serbian, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's 2014 film Samba depicts the use of languages other than French as both a hindrance and an asset for migrants in contemporary France. Based on Delphine Coulin's 2011 novel Samba pour la France,5 Samba tells the story of the Senegalese migrant Samba Cissé, who struggles to carve out a secure life for himself when his carte de séjour is cancelled after ten years of living in France. The film stars the black French actor Omar Sy (whose breakout role came two years earlier as Driss in Nakache and Toledano's blockbuster Intouchables) in a role that required him to adopt an accent to play an economic migrant from Senegal. Though reviews were split, varying from Les Inrockuptibles' praise ("[ce] feel-good movie populaire constitue une vraie surprise") to Télérama's ire ("pas de vrai scénario, pas de vrais personnages, pas de vraie mise en scène"),6 the film was a commercial success, drawing over three million domestic spectators. It was often described as the follow-up to Intouchables, "comme si [to cite Première] Intouchables avait servi de laboratoire aux deux compères pour intégrer désormais leur recette de base."7 Le quotidien du cinéma announced gleefully, "Il y a une vie après Intouchables!"8 France Inter broached the subject more tentatively, asking, "Y a-t-il un 'après' après 'Intouchables'?"9 Whereas Le Figaro mocked the films' similarities in the tongue-in-cheek "Samba-Intouchables, le jeu des 7 différences."10 However, Samba focuses much more closely on the theme of undocumented immigration than its predecessor. In Screen Daily, Nakache and Toledano explained of Samba, "We like to take a touchy subject, like immigration, and put our take on it."11 The film follows Samba as he navigates immigration detention, the court system, the world of undocumented [End Page 95] labor, and the Paris streets, where he must take precautions not to attract the attention of police after being ordered to leave France. In all these spaces, cultural identities come with socio-political baggage, characters must shape the way in which they are perceived in public, and some must even craft new identities to build a secure life. Unlike the novel, the film's narrative arc centers on Samba's growing relationship with a white French woman, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who is volunteering at a migrant support agency while she recovers from professional burnout. However, the film is focused less on interracial relationships than on the perception and construction of migrant identity in contemporary France.
The identity transformations undergone by characters in Samba vary from the subtle tweaking of public behaviors to the elaborate crafting of a false persona. When Samba's uncle Lamouna arrives in France, he makes a concerted effort to assimilate into French culture, shedding his Senegalese accent, dressing in conservative Western clothing, and even adopting behaviors he sees as being more 'French,' such as carrying a magazine under his arm. When his less-assimilated nephew is issued deportation papers and must begin hiding in plain sight, Lamouna insists Samba must do the same. His uncle advises him to change his appearance and monitor his movements to keep up the ruse, playing the part of the legal immigrant and avoiding those who may expose him as otherwise:
Ça fait dix ans que tu es là et tu comprends toujours rien. . . Écoute, Samba, à partir de maintenant tu vas t'habiller autrement. À l'européenne. Veste, pantalon, avec mallette en cuir, comme un homme d'affaires qui va au bureau. Tu prends de ma pile un magazine, tu le mets sous le bras. . .Tu restes calme et discret, comme je t'ai toujours appris. Et surtout tu sors pas si t'as bu. . . Tu évites les gares, les grosses stations comme Châtelet ou Nation. Après 18 heures tu prends plutôt le bus. Et dernière règle importante: tu triches pas dans le métro. Il y en a à cause d'un ticket ils ont quitté la France.12
Lamouna is not the only character who pushes Samba to assimilate. His caseworkers at the migration center also advise him on how to appear more French; at his hearing he wishes to wear his favorite Senegalese footballer's jersey, but they convince him to dress in a Western shirt and tie. As Samba attempts to imitate French behaviors, he grows increasingly paranoid. The adoption of an integrated, 'legal' identity causes Samba distress; he is constantly afraid of being discovered, after ten years of feeling comfortable maintaining many Senegalese traits in his adoptive country. In a surreal scene shot in a metro carriage, each passenger turns to stare at him with suspicion as the camera narrows in on his panicked expression. Thus, when his estranged [End Page 96] friend Jonas (a West African man with a carte de séjour) is drowned during an altercation in the film's final act, Samba takes on the man's identity, and with it his legal status, effecting a complete identity transformation.
However, the most illuminating case of identity shift in Samba is that of Samba's friend Wilson, played by Tahar Rahim. A fellow migrant Samba encounters at the préfecture, Wilson is a joyful character whose translanguaging between French and Portuguese legitimizes his claim that he is from Brazil. However, as the narrative unfolds, we discover that Samba's friend is not actually 'Wilson' at all.
The power relations of passing
—It's funny about 'passing'. We disapprove of it and at the same time condone it. It excites our contempt and yet we rather admire it. We shy away from it with an odd kind of revulsion, but we protect it.
—Instinct of the race to survive and expand.13
A practice that has existed since well before the publication of Nella Larsen's foundational 1929 novella Passing, race passing both undermines and reinforces the uneven distribution of power that shapes interracial relations in societies. Often, passing is a normative act that conforms to dominant racial hierarchies, with members of marginalized groups presenting themselves as members of dominant groups, in order to escape the discrimination against the former and access the benefits of the latter. In Passing, three pale-skinned black women present themselves as white in order to escape the racism of Jim Crow-era New York, enter white-only establishments, and even marry wealthy–and racist–white men. Indeed, the majority of the literature on race passing has analyzed cases of passing from black to white in the US context, focusing either on fictional texts (such as The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Passing)14 or historical case studies (Edmund Kenney, Homer Plessy, Susie Phipps). However, as Elaine Ginsberg suggests in her influential volume Passing and the Fictions of Identity, passing applies to broader and less binary contexts.15 Though passing plays on perceptions of racial categories as distinct, it does not actually affirm the concept of race itself, which is both socially constructed and contested.16 Instead, passing is a subversive act that hinges upon racist assumptions about physical appearance and ethnic background, turning such assumptions on their head to the passer's benefit. As such, passing is defined not by passage from any specific race to another (for example from black to white), but by the act of externally constructing, adopting, and manipulating identity: [End Page 97]
Passing is about identities: their creation or imposition, their adoption or rejection, their accompanying rewards or penalties. Passing is also about the boundaries established between identity categories and about the individual and cultural anxieties induced by boundary crossing. Finally, passing is about specularity: the visible and the invisible, the seen and the unseen.(Ginsberg 2)17
However, what remains ill-understood and understudied in the literature on passing is the place of language in this complex process of identity transformation. Specifically, there is a gap in scholarship surrounding the translingualism required to 'pull off' a successful pass. Yet this gap does not exist for lack of case studies. Recent years have seen a rise in films about linguistic passing, in which characters must either adopt a version of their native language imbued with racialized connotations ('white English' for example) or speak a foreign language as if it were their own. American texts are again at the forefront of this shift, with two influential 2018 films depicting black characters linguistically passing for white: Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman and Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You. In these two films, neither main character could pass as white in person, yet both manage to advance their positions by convincing others over the phone that they are white. In the surrealist black comedy Sorry to Bother You, Cassius Green (pronounced "cash is green") fails in his low-level telemarketing job until he discovers that adopting an absurd "white voice" gains him so many sales that he is propelled to the lucrative position of "power caller." And in BlacKkKlansman, detective Ron Stall-worth, the first black police officer hired in his 1970s Colorado town, uses his own "white voice" to develop a relationship with Ku Klux Klan members over the phone, infiltrating the white supremacist group and catching them out in terrorist activities. In both these films, black American protagonists manipulate the English language to dupe their adversaries into believing they are white, either for personal financial gain (Sorry to Bother You) or as an act of socio-political justice (BlacKkKlansman). As I have written elsewhere, "in BlacKkKlansman, English is not one language but many. Stallworth quickly distinguishes himself through his ability to code-switch between 'black' and 'white' dialects to manipulate, infiltrate and compromise power structures from within."18 These films make powerful statements about the racialized connotations of language and the power of those who can code-switch between dialects that benefit them in racist environments. However, both Sorry to Bother You and BlacKkKlansman operate within American contexts in which 'black' language is ultimately represented as disadvantaging and 'white' language operates as a means of social, economic, and political advancement. [End Page 98]
By contrast, while passing has rarely been studied in French cinema, several recent French films not only feature race-passing characters, but provide alternatives to the aforementioned normative, binary forms of non-white-to-white passing. For in films like Samba, the opportunities for transformative self-representation are not binary but polyvalent, and they problematize categorical understandings of race and power in contemporary French society. Like BlacKkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You, films like Samba often feature black characters and tense intercultural connections between black and white identities. However, most French passing films focus on another identity category: that of North African characters whose mother tongue is Arabic.
In the aforementioned La journée de la jupe, the fair-skinned French drama teacher Sonia Bergerac (Isabelle Adjani) is the brunt of persistent verbal and sexual harassment from her male students, most of whom are of low socio-economic backgrounds and diverse cultural origins. Sonia fails to forge a connection with her students as she attempts to impose dominant French norms by teaching them Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme in their banlieue school. The film follows Sonia through a single afternoon as she grows increasingly desperate and furious with her class. When she discovers one student is carrying a gun, she confiscates it, then snaps and takes the class hostage. At first, the rift between Sonia and her students-turned-hostages appears irreparable. Filmed mostly in the windowless, soundproof theatre classroom, the claustrophobic mise en scène heightens Sonia's anguish, isolation, and physical contrast with those around her.
Sonia's mobile phone rings constantly throughout the tense situation, usually as a hostage negotiator tries to convince her to free her students. Yet in one scene, an unexpected caller waits on the other end of the line. As the students watch Sonia's bravado fade away, the audience hears an unfamiliar voice speaking in Arabic. It is Sonia's father, attempting to reason with her in his native tongue. Thus, we discover that Sonia is not entirely white, but of at least part-Maghrebin origin; Bergerac is merely her married name. The play Sonia has been trying to teach to her students takes on a new, ironic significance, for Molière's Le bourgeois gentilhomme is also about passing and the unmasking of the passing character, M. Jourdain, a nouveau-riche who attempts to pass as a member of the French nobility.
When Sonia responds to her father in hushed tones in Arabic, the atmosphere in the room shifts. The conversation is not subtitled, the exchange an intimate encounter between father and daughter that is comprehensible only to an Arabic-speaking audience, but the Franco-Maghrebin students' ears prick up in surprise. When she hangs up, one student softens and asks, [End Page 99] "Pourquoi tu nous as pas dit?" For the first time, the possibility of common ground is opened up between teacher and students, between hostage taker and hostages. But Sonia fails to see the potential in this shift. Geneviève Sellier notes that the casting of Isabelle Adjani in this role is important, for she is "an actress whose ethno-cultural heritage (she is the daughter of a mixed couple: her father is Algerian and her mother German) had until recently been concealed, and whose star image has been built as the antithesis of that identity."19 The practice of passing has become such an entrenched one for Sonia (and perhaps Adjani), one attached to so much cultural prestige and professional success, she refuses to acknowledge any identity other than Gallic French. Sonia shuts down the opportunity for dialogue: "Je suis Française." Soon after, she is fatally shot by police.
Cases such as La journée de la jupe portray dominant forms of discrimination in which characters of non-French origin feel the need to pass as white to escape racism. However, upon closer analysis this scene reveals a more complex power dynamic, for in the specific moment after the phone call, Arabic wields more potential impact than French. Sonia fails to grasp this, clinging instead to the value of assimilation and refusing to explore the potential of multiculturalism. As Sellier explains, she hides her Arab origins "as if it were a shameful secret, a stain that would have kept her from being a credible French teacher" (154). She does not understand the opportunity at hand. As we shall discover in the following section, Samba is both similar to and different from La journée de la jupe. For like Sonia, Samba's friend Walid hides his Arab identity in public life. But unlike Sonia, he does not hesitate to shed his false identity when his Algerian one offers the opportunity for salvation.
Samba: from Walid to Wilson and back again
The cultural landscape represented in Samba is defined by imbalances of power. Status, freedom, and agency are unequally distributed among those born in France and those born in the Global South, those of white appearance and those of oppressed ethnic backgrounds, those who are fortunate enough to possess legal residence papers and those who are not. For the latter, life in France is an endless game of high-stakes hide and seek. As in so many other films, Samba's undocumented immigrant characters confront danger on a regular basis and must manage the ways in which they are perceived in order not to lose their place in French society. The film's non-white characters live in an unstable world that the film's white characters cannot fully understand. Yet upon closer observation, the power relations that exist between characters of diverse origins in Samba are not entirely stratified or fixed. Instead, the film [End Page 100] provides a polycentric vision of translingualism, one in which diverse languages can in fact benefit, advance, and protect the characters who use them.
Though Samba speaks only French, both in his professional and private life in France and on the phone with his family in Senegal, translingualism quickly emerges as a dominant motif in the film. Perhaps surprisingly, the first character to code-switch between multiple languages is the French Alice; working in the migrant advice center, Alice attempts to translate for various non-French-speaking migrants, using the lingua franca of English. In one humorous scene, when Alice's English proves unintelligible, we discover that this is not because she is not fluent enough, but too fluent. Mocking her "anglais du BBC" (Charlotte Gainsbourg is Jane Birkin's daughter, after all), her colleague advises her to speak English "more like a French person," and Alice manages to translate by using a simplified English syntax with a strong French accent. Translanguaging between French, English, and Portuguese throughout the film, Alice is fluent in a number of European languages, which prove useful in her professional and personal life.
However, Alice is far from the only multilingual character in Samba. In the detention center, at the migration agency, and on the undocumented labor market, Samba encounters other migrants who speak various languages, including Arabic, Russian, and Serbian. But the most non-French dialogue we hear is from Samba's Brazilian friend Wilson, who frequently translanguages in French and Portuguese. At the outset, Wilson comes across as a strange, even jarring character. The casting of prominent Franco-Maghrebin actor Tahar Rahim in the role appeared odd to a number of reviewers, and his portrayal of a Latino persona is exaggerated and even clichéd.20 Despite frequent code-switching Wilson only ever utters snippets of Portuguese, using well-known expressions such as "olá," and he often makes stereotypical flourishes of the hand and breaks into South American-inspired dance. On the surface, Rahim's performance as Wilson reads less as an authentic representation of Brazilian identity and more as a case of ethnic drag. However, we soon discover that this is deliberate, for cracks begin to show in the Wilson persona when he meets the multilingual Alice. At a Christmas party for the migration center staff and their clients, Samba introduces his case worker to his friend:
Vous êtes portugais?W:
Pas du tout. Brasileiro.21
When Wilson explains he is Brazilian using one sentence in French and another in Portuguese, Alice responds with unsubtitled pleasantries in fluent [End Page 101] Portuguese. Smiling at her blankly, Wilson does not respond. Instead, he quickly stands up and leaves the conversation, heading to the dance floor. Although she doesn't realize it, in this moment Alice risks exposing a secret Wilson has been hiding behind his Portuguese chatter and references to Brazil. For Wilson does not actually speak Portuguese at all.
However, it is not until a later scene that we discover the truth about the identity of Samba's friend. Sometime later, Samba and Wilson are working on a construction site, perched on scaffolding attached to a Haussmannian Paris building. As the men conduct repairs on the highest levels of the building, several police cars pull up to its base and begin to round up workers, demanding their papers. Samba and Wilson are trapped; the only exit is on the ground level, where the police will surely arrest them. Turning to the apartment building itself, they begin scaling the balconies, searching for open windows or doors. Then they spy a maid of Maghrebin heritage, vacuuming a bourgeois apartment. Rapping frantically on the window, they plead with her to let them in, pointing to the threat below and begging "S'il vous plaît, Madame, on est coincés!" The frightened woman stares at these two large men in their dirty clothing, yelling to be let in to her employer's pristine apartment, where she appears to be alone. She hesitates, clearly unconvinced. Then for the first time, 'Wilson' code-switches into Arabic.
What he says remains unsubtitled; neither Samba nor the (non-Arabic-speaking) audience is privy to the words he utters. The exchange is an intimate moment between two migrants of shared origin, as Samba watches on in surprise from the literal and figurative outside. But this intimacy is key to the exchange's effect. Telling them to remove their shoes in French, the maid opens the balcony window and lets the men through. Dashing out the front door and up the fire escape, they are safe. As they hide on a neighboring roof, looking out over the Paris landscape, Samba turns to his friend.
Dis-moi un truc, c'est quoi la capitale du Brésil pour toi? [pause]Wilson:
C'est ça je me disais.Wilson:
En fait je m'appelle Walid.Samba:
Pourquoi Wilson alors?Wilson:
Quand j'suis arrivé à Paris je galérais je galérais. J'suis tombé sur un groupe de Brésiliens sympas. Et je me suis vite rendu compte que pour le boulot, les nanas, tout, tout est plus simple quand on est Brésilien. Alors je suis devenu Wilson.22
It is not difficult to understand why Walid has chosen to pass as Brazilian rather than present his Algerian self in French public life. As an Algerian, he has experienced both blatant racism and banal marginalization that deprive [End Page 102] him of opportunities for work and relationships. As a Brazilian, he can avoid these disadvantages and obtain new benefits. The audience has seen this strategy at play in various scenes. His Brazilian persona ingratiates him with the French woman responsible for handing out the daily jobs; he plays up the flirtatious Latino persona that so appeals to her ("Tranquilo, senhora. . . obrigado"), and as a result he can get more work not only for himself but for Samba as well. (The background characters of Maghrebin origin are less successful in these morning free-for-alls.) He is also fetishized by a number of French women in the film and encourages this fetishization through the performance of a stereotypical Latino masculinity. In fact, in a striking contrast, the above scene is not the first moment in which he communicates with women through the window of a multi-story building. Earlier in the film, as Samba and Wilson are washing windows on a high-rise tower, Wilson turns up his radio and gives an impromptu striptease to a delighted office of female workers. Where the later window scene with the Maghrebin maid hinges on mutual cultural understanding and shared language, this earlier scene is based on wordless, performative sexualization of Wilson's body as he gives a Samba-dance-inspired striptease. Indeed, when Alice asks her French colleague Manu why she has broken her own rule about not crossing boundaries with migrant clients and has started a relationship with Wilson, she confesses playfully, "J'suis dans le sud américain."
Perhaps surprisingly, in order to understand what is at stake in Walid's passing in twenty-first-century Paris, it is illuminating to turn to a canonical nineteenth-century American text. For Walid's passing is reminiscent of an important literary case that Ginsberg focuses on in Passing and the Politics of Identity: George Harris's "Spanish ruse" in Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin. An enslaved black man of "mulatto" origin, Harris escapes not by emphasizing his pale skin to pass as white, but by darkening it to disguise himself as a swarthy Spanish traveler:23
A slight change in the tint of the skin and the color of his hair had metamorphosed him into the Spanish-looking fellow he then appeared; and as gracefulness of movement and gentlemanly manners had always been perfectly natural to him, he found no difficulty in playing the bold part he had adopted—that of a gentleman traveling with his domestic.(Beecher Stowe 108)
Shifting from literature to film, from the nineteenth to the twenty-first century, and from the antebellum US to contemporary France, Samba is a vastly different text from Uncle Tom's Cabin. Yet George Harris and Walid share much in common. Both men's acts of passing into a third racial category illustrate how, [End Page 103] as Ginsberg explains, "although the discourse of race passing and discussions of race-passing narratives traditionally assume a black/white binary and a related class system, complications of that dichotomy in fiction belie any such simple assumptions" (11). Wilson could not physically pass for white and Harris cannot risk attempting to do so, but a diagonal move towards a culturally-palatable Latino persona opens up an alternative means of escaping oppression.
[End Page 104]
It is interesting to note that Nakache and Toledano's previous film Intouchables casts the black Omar Sy as a character based on a real-life man of Maghrebin origin. In this and other ways, Nakache and Toledano's cinema has often presented a dominant vision of Maghrebin identity as oppressed and disadvantaging in contemporary France. However, as the escape scene in Samba shows, while there are obvious benefits to passing for a more privileged ethnicity, in reality privilege and disadvantage do not exist along a linear continuum. In the translingual ecology of contemporary Paris, there are not only opportunities for using Arabic as a means of advancement, but situations in which the refusal to speak this language for fear of revealing one's passing can endanger the passer. For it is only in revealing his true identity, and shedding his constructed one, that Walid is able to escape deportation and save his friend from the same fate.
The way Walid navigates language in France shows how "language is inextricably bound to the context in which it exists and is incapable of neutrality," recalling Ofelia García and Li Wei's vision of translanguaging as "the simultaneous process of continuous becoming of ourselves and of our language practices, as we interact and make meaning in the world" (7, 8). The Maghrebin maid is far from a high-status figure in broader French society, but in Walid and Samba's moment of need, she has the power to save them from capture, imprisonment, and exile. Samba shows how it is not only passing into racial categories typically perceived to be endowed with social power that can afford access to self-determination and agency. In this climactic moment, when Samba and Walid's destinies hang in the balance, French and Portuguese have no value, but Arabic becomes the key to unlocking the door, literally, through which they can escape to safety. The code-switching scene is thus the site of multiple discoveries. It reveals a new way of reading race, language, and power in France in which "[multiculturalism] can be top-down or bottom-up, hegemonic or resistant, or both at the same time" (Shohat and Stam 6). Instead of representing the Maghrebin migrant's plight as entirely hopeless, the film reveals how identity can be experienced as a site in which shifting axes of oppression and empowerment intersect.
Passing uses and crystallizes dominant racial, cultural, and linguistic categories that structure societies. However, translingual films such as Samba also problematize the essentialism inherent in these categories. They expose how "passing forces reconsideration of the cultural logic that the physical body is the site of identic intelligibility" (Ginsberg 4). They reveal the potential for [End Page 105] alternative dynamics in which both 'dominant' and 'marginal' identities can be useful and useless, empowering or disempowering, depending on the specific moment and the stakes at play within it. Contemporary France comprises myriad identities and endless possibilities for contact, conflict, and exchange between them. In such a kaleidoscopic space, historic racial hierarchies between white and Arab, French and foreign, continue to shape migrants' experience in symbolic and material ways. But they are not the only models for intercultural contact.24
Samba, Walid, Lamouna, Jonas, and their many migrant acquaintances use ethnic, linguistic, and cultural practices of passing to play the role of what dominant French society perceives as a 'good migrant.' This process of passing into safer identities in contemporary France is a fraught one that engenders not only personal crises and shame when characters must deny their true heritage, but paranoia when they fear their passing may be exposed. At the heart of this practice is language, for ethnic or race passing in cosmopolitan, present-day Paris is a translingual act that requires code-switching within and across multiple languages. Elaine Ginsberg writes of such fluidity, "both the process and the discourse of passing challenge the essentialism that is often the foundation of identity politics, a challenge that may be seen as either threatening or liberating but in either instance discloses the truth that identities are not singularly true or false but multiple and contingent" (Ginsberg 4). Samba not only reveals the multiple directions in which passing can be enacted in the French context and the various advantages of passing out of Arab identity. It also shows the multi-directionality of power relations that can challenge the success of passing and reveal the potential empowerment embedded in the original identity the passer has abandoned. Race passing is an extreme example of the ways in which members of marginalized communities attempt to reorder the social hierarchy and negotiate a more secure place for themselves in society.
In their 2014 book Translanguaging, Ofelia García and Li Wei write that "all languaging is enmeshed in systems of power, and thus, can be oppressive or liberating, depending on the positioning of speakers and their agency" (8). Translingual French cinema is highly attuned to these "systems of power." However, within this imbalanced environment, the connotations associated with marginalized languages are not always fixed and the flows of power between cultures do not always conform to a hegemonic binary. In such an environment, characters like Walid can find refuge not only in knowing how to conceal their true identity, but in knowing when to reveal it. [End Page 106]
1. Samba, Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, dir., Gaumont (2014), 01:23:05–01:23:10.
2. In using the term "translingual cinema" rather than "multilingual," "plurilingual," "polyglot" etc. we acknowledge Ofelia García and Li Wei's definition of "translanguaging": "Translanguaging is an approach to the use of language, bilingualism and the education of bilinguals that considers the language practices of bilinguals not as two autonomous language systems as has been traditionally the case, but as one linguistic repertoire with features that have been societally constructed as belonging to two separate languages." Translanguaging: Language, Bilingualism and Education (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), 2.
3. Passing: "To be accepted as or believed to be, or to represent oneself successfully as, a member of an ethnic or religious group other than one's own, especially one having higher social status." Oxford English Dictionary.
4. Code-switching: The "process of shifting from one linguistic code (a language or dialect) to another, depending on the social context or conversational setting." Encyclopaedia Britannica.
5. Delphine Coulin, Samba pour la France (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 2011).
11. Wendy Mitchell, "Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano, Samba," Screen Daily, Sep. 8, 2014, https://z.umn.edu/4oqn. It is worth noting here Nakache and Toledano's own translingualism and transnationalism as filmmakers, as this interview was conducted in English for a British publication as part of the Toronto International Film Festival.
12. Samba, 00:28:20–00:29:07.
13. Nella Larsen, Passing (New York: Knopf, 1929), 42.
14. James Welson Johnson, The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (Boston: Sherman, French, and Co, 1912). Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1852).
15. Elaine Ginsberg, ed., Passing and the Fictions of Identity (Durham: Duke U P, 1996), 1. Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537 (1896). Catherine R. Squires and Daniel C. Brouwer, "In/Discernible Bodies: The Politics of Passing in Dominant and Marginal Media," Critical Studies in Media Communication, 19:3 (2002): 283.
16. Nicolas Bancel, Thomas David, and Dominic Thomas, eds., L'invention de la race: Des représentations scientifiques aux exhibitions populaires (Paris: Éditions de la Découverte, 2014).
17. It is important to note here that Ginsberg discusses both race and gender passing as examples of "the opportunity to construct new identities, to experiment with multiple subject positions, and to cross social and economic boundaries that exclude or oppress" (16), using the highly publicized case of transgender man Brandon Teena as an example. This article departs from Ginsberg's approach in that it does not discuss transgender presentation as "gender passing." This is for a number of reasons. Most obviously, this piece is concerned with translingualism and race passing as a translingual act, a negotiation of hybrid linguistic identities in transcultural spaces. But more important, the passing represented in Samba, of an Algerian man adopting a constructed Brazilian identity, involves adopting a false identity the character does not truly identify with or believe in, as a survival strategy. For Walid, Wilson is a character and his true self remains Algerian. This identity dynamic is entirely different from the transgender experience, in which physically presenting as a particular gender is an act of identity confirmation, not of identity obfuscation.
19. Geneviève Sellier, "Don't Touch the White Woman: La journée de la jupe or Feminism at the Service of Islamophobia," Screening Integration: Recasting Maghrebi Immigration in Contemporary France, Sylvie Durmelat and Vinay Swamy, eds. (Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 2012), 146.
20. Tahar Rahim is frequently cast in roles that emphasize his mixed Franco-Maghrebin heritage; he speaks both French and Arabic in Un prophète (Jacques Audiard, 2009), À perdre la raison (Joachim Lafosse, 2012), and Les hommes libres (Ismael Ferroukhi, 2011), in addition to Samba and others.
21. Samba, 01:06:07–01:06:20.
22. Samba, 01:23:05–01:23:35.
23. Jason Richards analyses George Harris' "Spanish masquerade" as blackface in "Imitation Nation: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Making of African American Selfhood in Uncle Tom's Cabin," NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 39:2 (2006): 204–20.
24. Gemma King, "The Power of the Treacherous Interpreter: Multilingualism in Jacques Audiard's Un prophète," Linguistica Antverpiensia, 13 (2014): 78–92.