'Case Départ' Star Thomas Ngijol talks race, culture and hip hop
The films humor may get lost in translation
In New York’s Union Square stands a tall, lean man. The summer madness of the city streets doesn’t stop for him. He fits in perfectly: green graphic t-shirt, white shorts, dark sunglasses and iPod. As he walks under the massive movie theater awning on Broadway and 13th the irony sets in. Thomas Ngijol has the number one comedy in his homeland of France, but here his film is basically unheard of save for some online reviews.
For those that don’t speak French, one look at the trailer for "Case Départ" forces you to piece together what’s happening. Two black men in modern day Paris get transported back to slavery and from the looks on their faces and musical score, you come to the conclusion that this a comedy.
The film is a success, grossing nearly $15 million overseas. Detractors of "Case Départ" criticize the use of human enslavement for laughs. Ngijol, a veteran comedian, who stars in and co-wrote the film, understands but says once people see it they’ll change their minds.
“This film isn’t about slavery,” says Ngijol, sipping on lemonade in a booth of the chic Coffee Shop. “It’s about not very intelligent people with an identity problem. Black men who blame the system.”
To be fair, when it comes to the African diaspora, African Americans are some of the most sensitive when it comes to slavery. Our cultural identity is defined by it. As a native Parisian with Cameroon roots, Ngijol understands this. What he has a hard time coping with is American hip hop culture, being a role model and France’s classism.
Loop 21: Your film opened July 6th and is an overseas box office hit but the only focus, at least in America, has been the fact it is a comedy based on a plantation. Do you feel the need to defend the film?
Thomas Ngijol: When we took the film to the Cannes Film Festival this year we didn’t explain the movie. We showed the trailer and released the synopsis and that was it. You can’t explain it. Some things you have to see for yourself. At Cannes people loved the trailer. It’s not about slavery. It’s about two half brothers, who are very bad people in the present but go on a quest to learn their history.
You aren’t an overnight celebrity. While American audiences don’t know you, you’ve been a stand up comedian and actor in Paris for the last decade. How did you get started?
I was in a university to be a teacher. I wanted to teach children. I dropped out at 20 to do comedy. I’ve done comedy specials but now I’m focusing on my movie career. The success of ["Case Départ"] means I can’t stop now. My next comedy special will be in 2013. I have to make another movie first. That’s why I’m in New York; to clear my head and come up with new script idea.
"Case Départ" isn’t available in the states yet. Are there plans to bring it here?
It should be here December or January. We worked on the American subtitles months back. We’re also in talks to do an American remake.
Yes. This is the first film like this that’s been made and it’s a success. Hollywood came calling.
Who is going to star in it?
I can’t tell you, but they’re big.
Having co-wrote "Case Départ," you chose to set it in slavery times. Did you think it wouldn’t be received as you intended?
The slavery issue in France isn’t like here. The problem in France is social racism. What neighborhood you come from, wealth -- those are things that people are judged on. It’s not racism as you define it here. In Paris you can’t disrespect a black man. The law [prohibits] you. [Editor's Note: In 2003, France enacted penalty-enhancement hate crime laws for crimes motivated by bias against the victim's actual or perceived ethnicity, nation, race, religion, or sexual orientation.] We have other issues in France. Any society where there are poor people there will be problems.
Your success as a comic back home gives you a platform to address these issues. Do you address them?
I grew up in the hood. It’s not dangerous like here. [Laughs.] Some want me to be the voice of the ghetto. A ghetto saver. I love the ghetto but I don’t care about the ghetto. I don’t want that responsibility. I’m just a comedian. If I wanted that responsibility I would have become a politician. When you are true then you become a leader. Don’t get me wrong. I care about us. That’s why I don’t want to lead. [I'm] no false prophet. My parents came from Cameroon. I’ve seen a lot of false leaders and nothing happened.
What do you think about Americans?
I don’t understand society here. You aren’t open. You’re clones. The girls all have the same, very same voice. [In a squeeky high-pitched voice] “Hi, how are you?” It’s f*cked up. You also don’t understand quality of life. It’s all work. No focus on family or happiness.
What do you think about African Americans?
[Laughs.] I don’t know where you are going. When I see some black Americans I see the end of the world. Lil Wayne is a sign of the end of the world to me. Blacks here started as slaves, move to independence and success but now you’ve crossed the line. Obama killed rap. You don’t have a cause anymore. African Americans have no fight anymore. In the music videos, all you do is party. Everyone says they’re rich, in the club poppin’ bottles.
You just had the number one film in your country. You mean you don’t pop bottles in the club?
I have family in Cameroon with no running water. What am I poppin’ champagne for? I want to be free. I want to be simple.
[UPDATE: After our interview with Thomas Ngijol was first published he contacted Loop 21 to clarify his quote about African-Americans and hip-hop. Below is his statement:
"First, I respect and love African-Americans. They inspire me in my work and I have nothing but love for people who fight for their rights.. I respect black culture but it's just funny to see the evolution from slave to bling bling. Second, I love hip-hop and Lil Wayne but it's just sad that the industry doesn't have a lot of other alternatives in the spotlight. I came in peace so please spread that to your reader. Thanks.]