A Black Side of Noir

What African American and French Iconoclasm Have In Common

Denzel Washington in Devil in a Blue Dress
Devil in a Blue Dress (1995) | Columbia Pictures

Alain Delon may not be the first name that comes to mind when envisioning the foremost 20th century iconoclasts that embody the African American cultural experience. You might picture James Baldwin, Nina Simone, Dr. King, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Harry Belafonte, perhaps even Spike Lee. Yet these intellectual pioneers approached the American cultural landscape with a style and grace not so far removed from Delon’s inimitable cool. They may hail from different places, different backgrounds, and different cultural movements, but they are not as separate as they might seem. French and African American critiques of mainstream U.S. culture have walked in step for decades—especially in their claiming (or reclaiming) and reworking of American iconography. The noir genre, in particular, has created a liminal space where French and African American narratives have converged and blossomed into an intriguing relationship. This connection deserves attention, not only as a valuable multicultural example, but also as a goldmine of definitively cool films, stories, and aesthetics. Indeed, the relationship between Black American iconoclasm and French noir stylings highlights the contagious nature of social criticism itself, and the immensely broad potential for art and cinema to unite disparate but like-minded cultures.  

As has been well documented, the early 20th century saw many African American artists and intellectuals make a great escape to Paris and other French hubs of intellectual and artistic expression.1 From this point on, for the most part, the relationship between African Americans and France has been remarkably fruitful and relatively warm. From the 1920s all the way to the 1960s, such luminaries as Josephine Baker, Nina Simone, Sidney Bechet, Henry Ossawa Tanner, and, perhaps most famously, James Baldwin, found solace, support, and an entirely different way of thinking in Paris and beyond (not to mention, some different yet still unpleasant, new challenges as Black people in a mostly white society). This was also due in part to the amount of Black GIs who remained in France after the Second World War, on account of the far more civil treatment they received from French citizens relative to America’s segregationist society. French lifestyle and culture presented, at least theoretically, a desirable and attractive alternative for African Americans able and willing to make the trip. 

To be clear, by no means has the French government proven themselves particularly capable of fostering racial harmony—then as well as now. Nevertheless, the cultural and artistic French view towards race holds fascinating implications for African Americans. White French intellectual circles, in a way that their American counterparts never quite reflected, have held the plight and evolution of the African American experience in deep regard, even in a sort of esteem. Baldwin wrote extensively on the miraculous feeling of such a warm reception, and took a palpable level of pride in his ultimatum with the United States and expatriation to Nice (though I suspect the idyllic climate and surroundings may have contributed to his positive experience just as much as the social harmony). His 1976 collection of essays on film, The Devil Finds Work, is not only a paradigm-shifting piece of literary film-related prose, but a deeply inspirational text for me personally, as his acknowledgement of the complex but fruitful connections between the French nation and the African American past showed me a way to reconcile my own perspectives. 

That is, there’s a reason this subject weighs quite heavily on my afro-haired head. As a mixed race Jewish kid growing up in Washington, DC, it was rarely clear where I was supposed to fit in. Through my more artisan friends, a few generous and gracious teachers, my Black Europhile mother and white British father, the resources of local libraries and online catalogs, and Baldwin’s descriptions of French culture, I was gradually introduced to French crime cinema and grew to find it deeply appealing not only as entertainment, but as identification. Watching Delon slink around hyper-stylish nightclubs in Le Samouraï, or Jeanne Moreau drifting through the dreamlike Paris streets in Elevator to the Gallows, I came to see parts of postwar French cinema as not only a reappraisal of a country’s (post-collaboration) ethics, but also a remarkably direct reflection of African American iconoclasm towards American culture. 

The heartwarming part came when I realized I was not the only one who had made the connection. The films themselves, as well as the genre, draw direct, unmissable parallels between themselves and “Black” aesthetics and culture. Delon delivers his most heartfelt glances towards mocha-skinned Cathy Rosier in Le Samouraï; Moreau’s drifting is cinematically conjoined to the lilting, sleek instrumentals composed by Miles Davis. The connections between Black creativity and French settings go on, and date back decades before the rise of noir began.

 As an example of how storied and complicated the relationship has been, consider one of the foremost pieces of mid-century noir literature, 1946 pulp novel J’irai cracher sur vos tombes (which translates to I Spit On Your Graves). The novel is credited to “African American” writer “Vernon Sullivan,” but was actually written by white French novelist Boris Vian. Vian created the pseudonym Sullivan, and wrote an entire introduction as the fictional Black author, in an attempt to offer commentary on American exclusion and disrespect of African Americans—or, in “Sullivan’s” words, “his people.” While this might today be reasonably labeled anything from murky racial tourism to messy metaphor, it is a notable and indicative move for a French writer to attempt bringing an African American perspective to life, albeit in the simplest way he could. And while a straight dramatic plot from an African American might have been lumped in with others of its kind, a violent and gritty noir based on racial tension, and dripping with social commentary, was lauded for its innovation.

The noir genre itself is tailor-made for iconoclasm. The genre’s tropes are themselves a social commentary: women simultaneously liberated and pigeonholed as femme fatales; men castrated and powerless in the postwar period as pathetic or confused protagonists; overwhelming and cold societies looming over characters as a reflection of the crushing pressures of mid-century civilization. Noir films and stories particularly have this in common; given the German Expressionist roots of so many noir filmmakers from Fritz Lang to Robert Siodmak, it is no surprise they transplanted the previous movement’s use of encompassing shadows and threatening cityscapes to visually evoke urban anxiety. As Alastair Rolls and Deborah Walker’s extensive book on the subject French and American Noir points out, the popularity and darkness of the genre directly heralded “a growing sense of malaise within American society.” This implication is not hard to spot—the vast majority of noir plots themselves are structured upon sweeping indictments of “society’s ills.” Corruption, malice, betrayal, duplicity, the paper-thin line between right and wrong, justice and tyranny; all these feature in essentially every noir story one way or another, and all point to the deflation of trust and a growing sense of disillusionment with society at large. Over the years, noir has provided a fruitful avenue for critical and dissenting voices to speak loudly and directly about culture en masse, and to be heard, acknowledged, and popularized. 

Noir can naturally be used to explore and criticize essentially any society with internal malaise, but American society has been the most common target for these plotlines. Here is where both French and African American uses of noir begin to directly align; they both foreground the absurdity of American racialism in hard-boiled style.

While the giants of the genre have traditionally been white (and male-hegemony never quits), a number of African American creatives have embraced it as well. The most passionately celebrated during the 20th century was Harlem author Chester Himes, creator of entire franchises of Black crime fiction that produced just as much excoriating and honest social commentary as thrilling, rip-roaring pulp yarns. (Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni even dedicate a significant portion of their fascinating televised conversation from 1971 to lauding Himes’ literary talent and effect on the African American cultural landscape.) Possibly the most famous by contemporary standards is Walter Mosley, whose Easy Rawlins series has gained widespread recognition, both for the literary and cinematic ground broken—his Devil In A Blue Dress was adapted by Carl Franklin in 1995 into the popular neo-noir starring a magnificently arresting Denzel Washington. Mosley’s books also embedded racially-charged circumstances and commentaries into a thrilling and generically sound plot and setting. That is to say, the Rawlins mysteries can be read both as bona fide noir adventures and socially engaged commentary literature, thereby enveloping a classic American genre in an African American perspective.

Within both the novel and film Devil In A Blue Dress, for example, Rawlins is tasked with unraveling the mystery of a complex conspiracy involving racial passing and interracial love, and the pressures thrust upon Black people in trying to survive white America. In the process, pillars of American society are lampooned for their racially motivated undercurrents, from housing regulations to abusive policing to draconian prison sentences, and both Mosley and Franklin take care to diligently and incisively aim the crosshairs at the subtle, unspoken forms of segregation that permeated 1948 California, and in many ways continue to permeate 2020 America. Beyond Himes and Mosley, authors such as Barbara Neely, Eleanor Taylor Bland, and many others have carried on the legacy of Black noir fiction writers, while one could even read seminal texts like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Richard Wright’s Native Son, and Baldwin’s own If Beale Street Could Talk as consistent with the anxiety-riddled, socially conscious and distrustful atmospheres of archetypal noir style. The African American experience scrutinized by all these writers is rich with opportunities to comment on society’s wrongdoing through noir structures—white invasion and abuse of African American life and livelihoods provides pressing and intriguing fodder for commentary, and narrative action. 

So, historically, does the postwar Americanization of France’s cultural landscape. Cinemas showed American films; American novels flooded bookstores; discussions of American ideals, achievements, possibilities, and shortcomings were on many a citizen’s lips. The term “noir,” of course, was coined by French academics to define the similarly-styled American films made during the war, which packed picturehouses for years in its aftermath. When the French began writing hard-boiled noirs of their own, and making films noir of their own, they naturally included extensive interpretations and evaluations of Americanism and its implications. Intriguingly, many of these works were notably laced with racial commentary.

Consider Vian’s Vernon Sullivan character, whose existence might be duplicitous on one level, yet also symbolizes the French understanding of race in America. Vian’s writing and the characterization therein depict African Americans as intellectual, creative, unfairly treated, and desperate for a voice in the American mainstream despite their societal situation. In fact, multiple French commentaries on American society that deride or accuse the U.S. for nefarious or hypocritical behaviors and culture intentionally exclude African Americans from any disrespect—carefully avoided implying that American Black communities were to blame for American ills. As Rolls and Webster point out, Vian himself very clearly drew a “distinction between Americans and Black Americans,” and even found them more honorable and eloquent in many ways than the rest of American society. 

One could interpret this higher level of respect as a continuation of the decades-long appreciation of African American expatriates in Paris, including the widespread love for cultural elements directly attributed to African American creativity, the first and foremost being jazz music. Nearly every monumental French film noir of the post-war period—Jules Dassin’s Rififi, Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows, Truffaut’s Shoot The Piano Player, Godard’s Breathless, and many more—foregrounded the style and energy of jazz, not to mention myriad other references to and reflections of African American textures and experiences within American culture. These stories seemed to suggest not only that African American creatives were deeply talented and respectable, but also, by extension, that American disrespect of them was archaic and lamentable. This is not to say French films noir were explicitly racial, but rather that the French noir used the genre’s structures in full knowledge of the racial divisions of the society from which they developed. 

This balance, much like the balance within African American use of noir, allows both for commentary and liberation within noir stories, yet does not detract an inch from the genre’s thrills or sense of adventure. One filmmaker in particular steeped his work in American iconography and aesthetic cues, yet involved racial undercurrents and unmistakably French characters. He is also a director whose work has stayed with me more than any other: Jean-Pierre Melville.

Melville, a Jewish, stylish, prolific man, devotes a great deal of effort to amplifying American style, syntax, and semantics through a French lens. Nearly every protagonist of his crime films, from Le Doulos to Le Cercle Rouge to Bob, le Flambeur, dresses like they’re going to a Maltese Falcon-era Bogart look-alike contest in 1942. Melville’s films are not obviously “racial,” so to speak, yet his much-studied use of both American noir and French sensibility often includes some level of commentary on racial dynamics. Just look at the graceful femme Valérie at the heart of Le Samouraï, played by Martinique-born model and actress Cathy Rosier. 

Valérie is unmistakably a model of dark-skinned female elegance. Her piano-playing and comfort in high society recalls definitive Black glamour icons such as Josephine Baker, the contemporary Nina Simone, and Eartha Kitt. Even with supposedly progressive social attitudes, very few other films made in France in 1967 would so prominently feature a woman like her—and certainly not very many in the United States. Though Melville undoubtedly suffered from some tiresome and misogynist tendencies in a number of his other works, in Le Samouraï, Valérie is a respected and respectably strong presence. The presentation of her character draws from distinctly American iconography—the femme fatale, the Black jazz player—and combines it with French glamour (she has flawless fashion in the film), creating a strikingly diverse cinematic presence. Notably, she is never singled out in any way as different, lesser, or other. As far as I have found, the number of stylish, capable, elegant, non-villainous dark-skinned female characters who are depicted as desirable and do not die at the end can still be counted on one hand (though I am eager to be proven wrong).

French cinema like Melville’s is not perfect, or even consistent, in its commentaries—Valérie certainly has less agency than one today might find acceptable, as do many of Melville’s female characters—but this on-screen representation and similar “remixes” of American templates and icons nevertheless offer notably attractive opportunities for identification and appeals to the universality of cinema. Even as the hero and every other character in Le Samouraï is white, Valérie’s presentation (through both Melville’s direction and Rosier’s elegant performance) brings a racially inclusive quality to the film. Its respectful handling of Valérie signifies its separation from negatively racialized culture. I can therefore, as a person from the other side of the globe and the skin-hue chart, feel not only comfortable but welcome to imagine myself inside Melville’s film. And further, I know that not only Mr. Delon, but Mr. Vian, Ms. Baker, Mr. Baldwin, Ms. Simone, Ms. Rosier, and Mr. Melville would not be surprised to see an African American showing an interest in French culture. And, in turn, I would not be surprised to see the inverse.

This sense of wrestling “Americanism” into an identifiable shape is at the heart of much of the African American academic’s struggle with “American-ness”—King, Baldwin, Giovanni, Davis, and even Malcolm X seem to agree that America is not irrevocably flawed, or worthy of disposal, but rather that it is utilizing all its wonderful elements in entirely the wrong ways. Baldwin set this up for us directly when he said “I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” These voices, French and American, insist that the style, elegance, wit, and verve of so much of American creativity is simply in the hands of myopic, misguided, often sexist and racist branches of society—we should not burn it down and start again, they seem to say, but reclaim these elements for better, more universal use. 

Certain French cinema, like Melville’s work in noir, reflects this desire to reclaim and refresh American iconographies, while its tendency to remix Americanism reflects and builds on African American critiques of this society. Thematically, they both cry out: American iconography is universal, or rather, can and should be—it just needs a thematic push in a new direction to uncover its wide-reaching potential.

  1. Explored extensively, for example, in the recent, illuminating documentary by Joanne Burke, Paris Noir: African Americans In the City of Light