Valerie Complex On Being Black At Cannes: How Microaggressions Marred My Festival Experience

In The News
By david

After attending the Cannes Film Festival in 2019 as a freelance film critic, I was excited to go this time as a film critic and reporter for Deadline. I knew that access would be different with a powerful platform and that my workload would double in size. Either way, I was prepared for the challenge. When walking down the Croisette on the way to the Palais de Festivals, the atmosphere wasn’t as welcoming as I’d hoped. As soon as I reached my destination, I noticed what was in store for me during that trip: microaggressions directed toward me because of my skin color.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a microaggression is a comment or action that subtly and often unconsciously or unintentionally expresses a prejudiced attitude toward a marginalized group (such as a racial minority). Some of the incidents I experienced in 2019 Cannes fit the microaggression definition, but I’m sad to say it was worse this time.

I’ll focus here on the festival and not the city of Cannes, though the festival is a reflection of the city. Before going into detail about my experience last month, I have to first talk about what went down in 2019.

On the first day of my arrival in May 2019, I stood outside the Carlton, wearing all black. I had just picked up a screening ticket and had the envelope in my pocket. A woman approached me and asked, “Do you have tickets to sell?” I told her no, but the question kept resurfacing in my mind and bothered me all day. “What did she mean by that?” I wondered. I asked a journalist colleague of mine (a veteran of Cannes) about the incident. She explained that even though people are always hungry for tickets and will ask anyone for an extra if they see you with a ticket, many think Black people who hang around the festivities could be scalping tickets for film premieres. I was stunned to silence.

The next day after, as I entered the security area with many other journalists heading into the Palais, I was the only one “randomly” stopped for a bag search. When the security guard found a pack of gum, the man immediately began to scream at me in French. I don’t understand French, but I know aggression. “Why are you yelling?” I asked. His demeanor changed to shock — like he was surprised I spoke English. Another woman got involved and told me — calmly and respectably — not to bring gum into the Lumière theater next time. Embarrassed isn’t the word for what I was feeling. People were staring at me, thinking I had committed a crime! Flying off the handle over gum? I wondered if he’d react like that to everyone who had a pack of gum in their bag. Or just me that day?

If that wasn’t humiliating enough, I ran into a moviegoer who said something shocking to me the following day. I went to an early-morning screening of Mati Diop’s Atlantics. When the film was over and I was standing outside the theater getting my bearings, an older French White woman came up to me, put her arm on my shoulder — without permission — and said, “Wow! You did such a good job, you should be proud,” and walked off. “What was that about?” I thought. After 30 minutes, it dawned on me: This woman thought I was in the movie and probably thought I was the leading actress (Mame Bineta Sane). By now, I wasn’t angry, more disappointed than anything.

During my five-day trip, there were several other slights, but you get my point. My time in 2022 was much harsher, and I believe the enhanced access exposed me to a new set of issues, which seems part and parcel of a Cannes festival culture of elitism and exclusion.

On May 16, the first day I got there, I made my way to the American Pavilion when I was again “randomly” stopped by security. Their reasoning: I had a large bag with me. But everyone else had large bags as well. You would think Interpol was searching my bag as security dumped its entire contents onto the table so they could examine the items and check every crevice of my bag. Even passersby were shocked by what they saw. I thought to myself, “Here we go.”

The scrutiny of my credentials was constant, especially at screenings in the Palais. Guards and personnel would put my ID up to my face to ensure it was me, even before scanning it. I didn’t see anyone around me treated this way. Once when I attended a premiere screening at the Debussy theater, I headed toward the reserved seated section as those seats were what was printed on my ticket. Every seat usher requested to see my seat number the closer I walked to the front of the orchestra.

I saw plenty of white moviegoers who came in with me, walking toward the same area without anyone checking their tickets. When I finally got to my seat, I looked around me and didn’t see any folks of color in or around the rows directly near me. Maybe this is why? At another premiere screening, I sat down in a reserved row, and three different seat ushers came over to my seat to check my ticket to make sure I was in the proper place. They weren’t checking anyone else’s tickets, just mine.

These types of things happened to me daily. I tried not to let it get to me, but it was taking place so often that I became depressed. When you review a film, you want your focus to be on what is on the screen and nothing else. It was hard to dismiss the emotions of being singled out like this.

I spoke to others and looked for anything that helped validate how I felt. One journalist pinpointed what it was doing to me. “We internalize their racism and think maybe I need to dress better,” said the journo, who asked to remain anonymous. “I found myself dressing up for every film screening, thinking it would gain me more respect. I finally thought to myself, “Why am I doing this?” I don’t need to make myself look or dress better just to be accepted. I just need my ticket to the film or the invitation to the event. That’s it.”

Clayton Davis, senior awards editor at Variety, took to Twitter to express his frustrations with being pulled off the red carpet for wearing a white tuxedo while witnessing others wear the same without incident. While inside the Palais, he was constantly asked to show his credentials to check if he was in the right place.

Vogue reported that Indigenous film producer Kelvin Redvers was barred from the red carpet premiere of Forever Young (Les Amandiers) for wearing moccasins, which is a part of the cultural fashion that the festival is supposed to be more lenient with.

Black French actresses saw the problem with representation in the French film industry and addressed it at the 2018 Cannes festival. French actresses Aissa Maiga, Nadège Beausson-Diagne, and others walked hand in hand to protest the under-representation of Black and mixed-race women and the clichés they are subjected to at Cannes and in the industry at large.

I understand the dynamics. Marginalized groups, specifically Black people, are excluded from these “elite” environments. Those in power refuse to accept that the media landscape is changing. The higher one climbs, the more egregious the microaggressions become. It is attributable to gatekeeping, where there remains a misunderstanding of what being established looks like. It’s hard for some to believe that I could be sitting in the reserved section of a premiere at the Grand Auditorium Louis Lumière, which is usually occupied by people who don’t look like me. That in itself becomes an unflattering reflection of the festival.

The same group of white male directors has cycled in and out of the main competition. Outside of Salam, co-directed by Anne Cisse — the only Official Selection at the festival with a Black female director — 2022 was more of the same. It is not enough for Cannes to program films that focus on marginalized groups. When will non-white filmmakers get a chance to be recognized for their talents behind the camera? Mati Diop is the first and only Black female director to compete in the main competition and became the first to win a major award in the festival’s history. Ladj Ly’s Les Miserables also won that year. Cannes has been around for 75 years; why was 2019 the first time this happened?

The level of exclusion is a pattern of behavior that’s continued to thrive even when everyone thought progress was on the way. Cannes Film Festival Delegate General Thierry Frémaux reinforces that feeling in his statements. Responding to a press conference question about the lack of films by Black directors, Fremaux said, “It takes time for cinema to come into its own.” In the same speech, he tokenized Diop as the pinnacle of cinematic diversity for Cannes, as if one person is enough to erase seven and a half decades of exclusion.

I thought long and hard about writing this, but I can’t be satisfied with just being one of the few Black journalists in attendance. For such an important festival, the goal must be for more of everyone — more equity for those who make films and those who cover them. It has to start with changes in attitude, a recognition that old bad habits have to be scrutinized by those with the power to accept or turn away worthy films or Black journalists who want equal treatment.

I was grateful to attend the festival, but Deadline chose me to represent it at the festival based on the quality of my work, not because I am a Black woman. Those principles should apply to Cannes. I write this hoping that those of us on the margins will feel compelled to speak out against injustices they see or experience there. Maybe that will light enough of a fire under them to do more than the bare minimum.

Valerie Complex is Deadline’s associate editor/film writer and host of the Scene 2 Seen podcast.

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