For observers of the endless examples of racism in the United States legal system, the month of October began with surprising news. Amber Guyger, the white Dallas police officer who shot and killed Botham Jean, her black neighbor, in his living room, was found guilty of murder. Across the Atlantic, on the same day that Guyger was convicted in Dallas, Assa Traoré, the family member of another slain black man, who died in 2016 in police custody under suspicious circumstances, stood in a French courtroom. Unlike Guyger, there were no hugs or tears for Traoré. Instead, Traoré was the defendant in a defamation suit for naming on social media the three police officers involved in her brother’s arrest on his 24th birthday, the arrest that led to Adama’s death in a holding cell.
Still in France, but some 6,000 kilometers and an ocean away from Paris, police brutality is not a particularly hot button issue. Instead, in Martinique, the long-running scandal is of the poisoning of agricultural land and water sources with the American-manufactured insecticide chlordecone, nearly 20 years after the French government banned its use in the metropole. The fact that the French state did not take the same measures to safeguard the health of its citizens in the Caribbean, allowing the continued use of a chemical deemed too toxic for the rest of France, means that the chlordecone scandal, like Adama Traoré’s death, is very much about French racial discrimination that has its roots in the country’s imperial past.
With the US as the site of production, France as the seat of power, and Martinique on the receiving end of destructive policies driven by economic expediency, chlordecone unites three disparate places that are rarely spoken of in the same breath. Indeed, not many people connect police brutality in the French capital to an environmental disaster that has given the small Caribbean island the dubious distinction of having the highest rate of prostate cancer in the world. Connecting those dots is at the heart of the new film BACK UP! by Christophe Gros-Dubois.
BACK UP! is a low-budget film that makes lofty promises, and it delivers on some of them. The story revolves around a group of underground investigative journalists who style themselves “the voice of the Republic’s forgotten.” Their mission is to uncover the hidden truth behind acts of state violence. At the start of the film, that violence comes in the form of the police killing of Sami Adibi, a young French man of Tunisian origin. The police have no answers, only the well-rehearsed narratives that criminalize the dead man.
The four journalists of Back Up turn to social media to diffuse their counternarrative. Professor X pontificates on camera. Hakim Tafer, the ostensible leader, meets with an American investor who can “take Back Up to the next level.” The group’s only white journalist bears that most quintessential of French names, François, and sees his work behind the camera as a steppingstone to a more stable gig at a mainstream media outlet. The only woman, La Rageuse, is also the only person who does any investigating. Her task is to connect Adibi’s death to historical examples of state violence, specifically the disappearance of Georges Beltran, a Martinican activist in Paris, in the 1990s. Amidst a flurry of likes, livestreamed chats and debates about how to maintain a steady flow of faithful online followers, the conflict among the underground journalists reveals the complicated mess that the neat descriptor of “speaking truth to power” seeks to encapsulate.
Expertly played by Astrid Bayiha, La Rageuse is at once the film’s flaw and redeeming quality. Hers is a compelling character. She is angry. We know that it is a justified, righteous anger. But we do not know the reason for it. In fact, we never learn her real name. For all its self-reflexiveness on the fine line between the radical politics of sousveillance and the self-aggrandizing desires of activist-influencers, the film is remarkably shortsighted in its rendering of La Rageuse as yet another angry black woman with no backstory.
Despite the film’s shortsighted representation, La Rageuse is also the only one who sees that Back Up’s insistence on access to the Adibi family’s grief “for the cause” borders on the exploitative. She questions the ways that the underground nature of the group’s work will be changed by American investment backing. In a film peppered with heavy-handed monologues about the illegitimacy of state violence, La Rageuse is the voice of nuance. On one occasion when a security guard ejects her from the grounds of a company she is investigating, she throws a tampon in his face as a metaphorical middle finger. Ultimately, she is the only person who connects Martinique’s white plantation owners and French police as complementary agents of state violence via economic repression and brutal force respectively.
Police brutality and the chlordecone scandal come together in the film as the Janus-faced representation of the French state, terrifying on both sides. The shaky movements of the handheld camera simulate the clandestine smartphone recordings that the Back Up team marshal as evidence in the court of public opinion. They invite the viewer to consider the promises and limits of body cameras and bystander footage as tools for destabilizing state power. Juxtaposed with the grainy images of the VHS tape of the disappeared Martinican activist, Georges Beltran, they also invite the viewer to connect past to present, environmental crimes in the French Caribbean to racism in the French capital.
BACK UP! offers no answers, even as it clumsily attempts a neat resolution at the end of the film. But it is the start of an important conversation about the global net cast by imperialism then and now.