Chocolat (1988)

Viewed February 10th

In this early Claire Denis film, racial tensions simmer in Colonial West Africa.

The relationships between the African blacks and European whites in this Northern Cameroonian Colonial compound are presented in an appropriately complex manner. The whites are the masters but they require the practical knowledge and the recognition of the blacks to have their egos satisfied. The whites also have access to the black bodies and can invade their privacy while the reverse cannot happen. One of the more intriguing aspects of the film is how it explores its own complicity in this exploitative dynamic. In one scene, the head houseboy Protee is seen showering in the nude in the outdoor shower that the servants have to use. We, the audience, gaze at his body and can't help but notice that it's muscular and conforms to certain tropes about black bodies. The film also gives us access to a private moment where Protee washes the soap suds off his body and exclaims with a satisfied smile. Within the postcolonial discourse that the film is situated within, these shots are undeniably problematic. However, the scenario becomes twisted when the white woman who runs the house and her daughter pass by and cannot help but notice Protee, exposed, in the outdoors. We then watch Protee hide his body and, in an almost shocking moment (because he's been so stoic to that point), he starts to cry. This chain of events brilliantly loops the viewer into adopting the European gaze upon the black body, but then stays with Protee as he experiences shame, thus transforming what it means to adopt that gaze. Later on, in a sort of companion scene, the true villain of the film, if there is one, a young white male Colonial, takes it upon himself to use the servant's shower. By doing so, he takes from the black servants what little private space they have and allows himself to adopt the feeling of being the servant and whatever psychological pleasure comes with the ability to imagine overthrowing an oppressor. However, unlike Protee, his privilege is unchallenged so he freely presents his nude body without shame. This is a particularly upsetting transgression because not only does the white have the power to access the space of blackness and marginalization here, but he can even inhabit their point of view as the exploited class without threat of any actual psychological damage--it's a sort of Colonial West African "slumming it." Protee has to speak up about this, it's too much. And by speaking up, he inflames the racial tensions in the compound even more.   

Chocolat is told not from the point of view of the whites or the blacks, or even an omniscient point of view, but from the naive perspective of the young white girl who doesn't understand the implications of everything happening around her. For her, both the whites and the blacks are equally human and equally deserving of having the film adopt their point of view. In a final layer to the film, the young girl (ironically named "France") returns to Africa as an adult, now equipped with the knowledge of Colonial atrocity and complex racial politics. She becomes a proxy for Claire Denis herself, who also spent her adolescence in Colonial West Africa and is returning to make a film about it. The twist is that, although the woman has empathy and desires to create an authentic experience around her return to Africa, she is not able to fully access it. By extension: despite Denis' intentions in making this film about racial issues in Colonial West Africa, she acknowledges that there will never be a truly objective portrayal of what happened between the blacks and whites in that compound or about what it is to be African .