Chocolat: France’s first black stage performer
by Fabien Lemercier
- Omar Sy and James Thierrée really stand out in Roschdy Zem’s new film, produced by Mandarin and distributed by Gaumont
As the question of race sets tongues wagging once again in relation to the Oscars, today Gaumont is releasing a film in 587 French theatres that brings an incredible story back into the spotlight: that of Chocolat the clown, who was France’s first black stage performer and who, as part of a duo with Footit, garnered huge mainstream success in Belle Époque-era Paris, before fame, easy money, acting and discrimination brought both their friendship and Chocolat’s career to an end.
Roschdy Zem’s fourth feature as a director (following Bad Faith [+see also:
film profile], Omar Killed Me [+see also:
film profile] and Bodybuilder [+see also:
film profile]), Chocolat [+see also:
film profile], has some real aces up its sleeve in the guise of its two excellent lead actors, Omar Sy (Untouchable [+see also:
film profile]) and James Thierrée (Love Battles [+see also:
film profile]), who are flanked by talented performers such as Clotilde Hesme, Olivier Gourmet, Frédéric Pierrot, Noémie Lvovsky, Alice De Lencquesaing and Dominique Rabourdin, not to mention an appearance by Bruno and Denis Podalydès in the roles of the Lumière brothers.
Written by Cyril Gely in collaboration with Roschdy Zem and Olivier Gorce, who loosely adapted Gérard Noiriel’s book Chocolat clown nègre, the story sketches out the astonishing career of Rafael Padilla, who was born to an African family forced into slavery and deported to Cuba, and was sold at the age of eight before running away several years later. After eking out a living doing odd-jobs, he then crosses paths with famous white clown George Footit, who discovers the extent of his potential, hires him, nicknames him Chocolat and forms a comedy duo with him, which then shoots to fame.
According to Roschdy Zem, the film tells "the story of a couple of people who meet, start creating together, and whom life pulls apart. But it also depicts the emancipation of a man, Chocolat, who discovers life, becomes a rational adult, one who is less naïve, and therefore less submissive. Through this story, it’s also the story of France that we are recounting a little bit, without any guilt or finger-pointing. Chocolat left a mark on his era and was forgotten, but he’s not the only one. Talking about it allows us to get a better picture of his past. And I’ve always thought that this was vital in order to live better in the present. Chocolat is a hedonist who embraces life. Without forgetting his past as a slave, he seizes the opportunities offered to him and becomes a huge star. With this positive character, it became possible, without obscuring the colonial context, to handle the story while avoiding pathos.”
Produced by Eric and Nicolas Almayer for Mandarin Cinéma, Chocolat was co-produced by Gaumont, Korokoro and M6 Films, and was pre-purchased by Canal+ and Ciné+. Warmly welcomed by the French critics, who, besides the film’s historical interest, have particularly underlined the quality of the work undertaken to reconstruct early 20th-century Paris, Chocolat will be screened at the European Film Market at the 66th Berlin Film Festival (11-21 February 2016) by Gaumont, which is also in charge of the title’s international sales.
(Translated from French)