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100% Arabica

April 14th, 2004 (01:46 pm)
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© 2004 D. Gordon. Earlier version posted Apr 14, 2004 on The NY Times film fora.

According to a friend of mine, you know that an ethnic group has "arrived" when its members can write trash like anyone else and no one bats an eye. While not exactly trash, 100% Arabica isn't Masterpiece Theater, either. What it is is a fun trip with catchy tunes that's a good time - nothing more, and no need to fire the brain cells up.

Remember those movies featuring the latest rock / disco / rap / hip hop stars, where the kids just want to play their music and the stuffy authority figures are trying to shut them down? 100% Arabica moves that formula to a poor African (Arab / Black) neighborhood in Paris. Rai singer Khaled is a lynchpin of the cast, later joined by Cheb Mami - and the rai (Algerian rap) flows like thick Arabic coffee. (Admittedly, both Khaled and Mami are more than flashes in the pan; Khaled also gives a decent performance as Rachid.)

There are serious issues underlying the story. We have Islamic fundamentalism: the main villians are a corrupt imam and his sidekick who've decided that Islam doesn't allow music and dancing. He's counterbalanced by a moderate imam and other Muslims who periodically point out his Koranic misinterpretations (once comparing him to Jean Le Pen). There's police behavior towards the immigrant community: the police and the mayor put in several appearances, always as buffoons in league with the evil imam. And there's the poverty: this is a poor neighborhood, and it's working the system that allows people to get by. Send a ripple across the delicately balanced lives, and someone will fall in.

Not all of the good guys come through in a perfect light, either. The members of Khaleb's group are all straight, but they all have skeletons in their closets - and temptation swings by on the occasional cue. The little kids in the crowds spend their time making bootleg cassettes of the street concerts which they sell around the neighborhood. (Who needs royalties?) The folks in the 'hood steal cars and car parts as part of the jokes. But just give 'em some music, and everybody's happy. (Well, except for the imam.)

Those serious problems hinted out in the movie - second-class citizenship, poverty, discrimination, police harrassment - are all very real issues in France. This, however, isn't the movie to explore them. Take this as the toe-tapping, feel-good popcorn movie that it is, and you'll have a good time groovin'. Just don't expect more.