Rather than positioning Les Misérables and Just Mercy as retellings, Ladj Ly and Destin Daniel Cretton engage with modern France’s and America’s relationships to classic texts.
“So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, […] so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Misérables cannot fail to be of use.” – Victor Hugo, in the preface to Les Misérables
Ladj Ly’s Les Misérables is not an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s classic novel, despite taking place in Montfermeil, the subsect of Paris where the novel was set. Rather than positioning his film as a modern retelling, Ly directly engages with modern France’s relationship to the source material. “You know why the school’s called Victor Hugo?” a cop, Chris (Alexis Manenti), asks a new transfer to the area, Pento (Damien Bonnard). “He wrote Les Misérables here,” Pento flatly replies. “Things haven’t changed much.” It’s an offhand comment, followed by Chris’s crude jokes about the very real struggles of the local people and how they relate to the novel’s tale of poverty and fighting for justice. Hugo’s Les Misérables is deeply baked into French cultural history, but the events that ensue in Ly’s modern tale of racial injustice and police brutality demonstrate that the French haven’t learnt much at all from this text that they revere.
This reckoning with a culture’s relationship to a classic text is similar to Destin Daniel Cretton’s recent death row drama, Just Mercy, set in the same Monroeville, Alabama where Harper Lee wrote To Kill a Mockingbird. In Just Mercy, unlike in To Kill a Mockingbird, the lawyer seeking justice for a wrongly convicted black man is black himself. When Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan) wanders the town, speaking to those involved in the conviction of one of his clients, multiple people cheerily tell Bryan to visit the Mockingbird Museum, a monument to Harper Lee’s novel which was published thirty years before the film is set. Everyone in Monroeville is proud that their town has ownership over such a cultural monument, but so few of them heed its message.
In both Les Misérables and Just Mercy, members of the law enforcement brag about the famous novels from their home town that rail against injustice, but the French and American police force depicted in these films privilege their own power over justice. While the American cops in Just Mercy are wilfully racist, the corrupt justice system in France renders even the one black officer complicit in causing injustice.
In Just Mercy, we witness systemic racism at every level of the legal system, from a corrupt sheriff to a racist judge. As Bryan unravels the case of Walter McMillan (Jamie Foxx), a black man convicted of murdering a young white woman, he realises how horrendously the case was handled. McMillan’s sentence was passed on the word of one witness, who only testified after being threatened by police officers; at the same time the alibis of dozens of McMillan’s family members were ignored. However, when Bryan points this out to the very same sheriff who recommended a visit to the Mockingbird Museum, he dismisses Bryan’s desire to re-open the case. The sheriff explains that the people of Monroeville want to see someone punished for the death of the murdered girl. He doesn’t care if the right person is punished, as long as the townspeople think he’s carrying out justice and his good reputation remains intact. Even when Bryan’s appeals get the case taken back to court, the judge once again ignores overwhelming evidence, a decision we assume is due to racist biases, since the case is clear cut on every other count. When McMillan is finally freed at the state supreme court, it feels like a blessing of chance that his case happened to be seen by a judge who wasn’t blinded by prejudice.
In Les Misérables, the boorish Chris is the most overtly racist of the group, but even do-gooder Pento, and the only black officer of the three, Gwada (Djebril Zonga), are eventually twisted into agents of racialised violence by the law enforcement system. Chris’s overt villainy is set up early on when he stops the patrol car just so he can leer at a group of young girls and frisk them. But Pento and Gwada, who aren’t as inclined to racialised violence as Chris, still end up committing it by the end of the film. The police force has granted power and a gun to Gwada, an angry young man, and in the heat of the moment, he uses it to shoot a young black boy mid-film. This act of violence triggers riots throughout the neighbourhood: black citizens attack the three officers, lumping them together because of their badges, meaning even the supposedly righteous Pento ends the film with his gun pointed at a black child.
Ly depicts a justice system more concerned with its reputation than the actual business of justice. When Gwada shoots a kid, the incident is captured by a drone. Pento frantically insists that the child, who is seriously wounded but still breathing, be taken to the ER. But Chris and Gwada are more concerned with finding the drone before the footage it captured is leaked than they are with the boy’s welfare. They insist on using their one source of transport, the police car, to track down the drone rather than bring the boy to safety. Their job is ostensibly to keep the people of Montfermeil safe, but the emphasis that the police force puts on power and status is contradictory to that aim. The officers are more worried about whether or not their inhumane practices will become public than they are actually keeping people safe.
Similarly, revering a white saviour narrative like Mockingbird allows the people of Monroeville to feel like they are anti-racist while still maintaining supremacy over black people. Mockingbird may depict the liberation of an innocent black man, but it’s still ultimately all about Atticus Finch and the power he holds. Monroeville does not treat a black lawyer the same way. Bryan faces even more pushback against his defence of an inmate than Atticus Finch did, and the attacks on Bryan are unmistakably racially motivated. When Bryan first visits death row, a sneering prison guard refuses to let him through without a strip search. Bryan knows that what the guard is doing is illegal, but he comes to the harrowing realisation that there’s no way for him to help his clients beat a racist system if he doesn’t comply with it first. On top of this, Bryan faces multiple threats on his life as a result of his defending death row prisoners; and one night, two police officers pull him over, frisk him, and warn him to stop helping his clients. Like Atticus Finch, he wins in the end. But he has to work a lot harder and go a lot further than the local court to even be listened to.