Tuesday, November 29, 2016

ADIFF ’16: Gang of the French Caribbean

In the 1970s, there was a demand for postal money orders. That meant post offices often carried considerable sums of cash on-hand, yet they did not have the same level of armed protection common to banks. Being a symbol of the French government made them even more desirable targets for the disillusioned Jimmy Larivière and his gang. For a while they live high and feel empowered, but internal divisions and external pressures will inevitably lead to bloodshed in Jean-Claude Flamand-Barny’s Gang of the French Caribbean (trailer here), which screens as the centerpiece of the 2016 African Diaspora International Film Festival in New York.

Like many colonial immigrants from the French Antilles, Larivière feels like the victim of a bait-and-switch, falsely promised serious job-training by the Bureau for the Development of Migration in the Overseas Departments, but only offered menial employment on arrival. Unlike many disillusioned French Caribbean migrants, Larivière channels his frustration, falling in with a team of armed robbers led by the aptly named Politik.

Politik talks a good radical game and he has connections to radical separatist organizations back in the French Antilles. Unfortunately, he is also loyal to a fault with respects to the gang’s weakest link: Molokoy, a heroin addict would-be pimp deeply in debt to Algerian white slavers. Molokoy’s erratic behavior, simmering resentment, and cowardly violence make him a ticking time-bomb. Larivière also has his own long-term problems, including Nicole, a progressive former resident of Martinique, who recognized him during his first hold-up.

Gang follows a familiar gangster rise-and-fall trajectory, but the 1970s period details are spot-on. Indeed, it captures all the chaos and confusion of the era with a good deal of subtlety. Larivière’s semi-protective relationship with Molokoy’s Algerian prostitute and the French Algerian military veteran (played by Mathieu Kassovitz), who in turn protects him from the Algerian gangsters seeking to reclaim her are particularly intriguing. Of course, there is plenty of anti-colonial messaging, but Flamand-Barny wraps those bitter pills in easy to digest action.

As Larivière, Djedje Apali broods like nobody’s business, while Adama Niane just radiates bad vibes as Molokoy. Eriq Ebouaney also sets off plenty of alarm bells as the slick and vaguely sinister Politik. Whenever those three circle each other, we expect fireworks to follow shortly. Kassovitz makes the most of his all too brief experience as the shotgun-wielding café proprietor Romane Bohringer brings dignity and dimension to Nicole, one of the few female characters who is not largely stereotyped.

Although Gang is just ninety easily-manageable minutes, it feels pretty epic. Fittingly, Larivière and company namecheck the self-styled revolutionary gangster Jacques Mesrine, because the film would make an apt triple-feature with the Vincent Cassel Mesrine duology. Recommended for fans of historical gangster films, Gang of the French Caribbean has its red carpet gala screening this Saturday (12/3) during the 2016 ADIFF.