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Too Black To Be French?

  • California Institute of Integral Studies 1453 Mission Street San Francisco, CA, 94103 United States (map)

In this documentary film recently aired on ARTE, Isabelle Boni-Claverie explores the role of race and persistence of racism in France, and the impact of the French colonial past. She uses the lens of her family and personal history as the granddaughter of an African grandfather from the Ivory Coast who married a white French woman in the 1930s. The filmmaker draws on her own history as well on anonymous interviews of ordinary people and conversations with sociologists and historians including Pap Ndiaye and Achille Mbembe, to explore questions of race, culture, identity, and belonging.

Too Black to be French? centers the question of how nationalism violently and discriminately aims to trump race, culture, and history to maintain a mirage of sovereignty. As the US media and discourses are struggling to erase the body politic of Native Americans and indigenous peoples protecting water and calling for the closure of the Dakota Access Pipeline, as the San Francisco Forty-Niner’s Colin Rand Kaepernick first amendment right to refuse to pledge allegiance is hit with criticism, how do we exercise the fluidity of our body politics to re-claim self-determination and re-define nationalism?

The event invites participants to dialogue with 3ft x 6ft water color portraits and carry this discussion into the questions and testimonies presented in Too Black to be French? This program is co-sponsored by the student group TRANGRESS and Student Alliance at the California Institute of Integral Studies.


"These Objects, Those Memories" is a split-screen film focused on material culture, specifically, that of three long-term Zimbabwean female migrants currently residing in Cape Town, South Africa. Through an exploration of the objects brought with them, objects sent back to their homeland, objects left behind and their associated memories; stories of joy, loss, and hopes for a return to Zimbabwe are examined.

Aïssa, a young Congolese immigrant, is controlled by police officers, as she has no papers on her. She claims to be 17 years old, but the police do not believe her and force Aïssa submit to a medical examination. Her future depends on the result of this test, because if it turns out that she is an adult, she will be deported from the French territory.


In a TV studio, a girl named Lili is asked to serve as a ‘China Girl’. China Girls, used in cinema history since the 1920’s, are women with Caucasian skin who are filmed alongside a colour-chart in order to adjust the colours of the film. Their porcelain white skin is used as a reference for the colour grading of camera and printing, ultimately excluding people who do not conform to this implicit norm.

Nobody knows for sure why they are called China girls, as they never actually are Chinese. Perhaps because sometimes, when a live model was lacking, porcelain dolls were used for the task. If the film tonality is adjusted to the white complexion, other skin colors look unnaturally dark. Black actors appearing next to white actors need to wear insanely thick layers of make-up, otherwise they will appear pitch black with only white patches of teeth and eyeballs. For this very reason, Jean-Luc Godard famously refused to use Kodak film stock when working in Mozambique.

Can technology itself be racist? An van. Dienderen contends that the medium itself should be examined from its technical aspect, because it matters what we consider a norm, be it in the skin color, the gender relations involved in the film process or an average beauty standard.

Earlier Event: October 12
Karima, A Day in the Life of a Henna Girl
Later Event: October 13
Intersections: Alice Street