Want to know why George Floyd’s murder last summer at the hands of cops caused protests all over the world? It’s because police brutality toward people of color isn’t just an American thing. Take a look at France, where filmmaker Ladj Ly filmed a police beating as a teen and used that as the basis for his thriller Les Misérables. More recently, French cops were caught on tape assaulting African refugees in a camp and a Parisian music producer in his studio. Each time, white authorities proclaimed their shock that officers of the law would express their racial prejudice so violently, and each time, Black and Arab French people were like, “Pffft!”
Into this environment steps Lupin, a French TV series where the main character is Black, which is rare enough in itself, but he is also one who is racially profiled at every turn by openly racist gendarmes and has to work against them. Like the Japanese manga series of the same name, Lupin takes its title from the pulpy adventure stories written by Maurice Leblanc at the start of the 20th century about a gentleman cat burglar named Arsène Lupin. Senegalese immigrant Assane Diop (Omar Sy) is a devoted reader of those stories in the present day. Back in 1995, his father (Fargass Assandé) worked as a chauffeur for a rich white family named Pellegrini. After being scapegoated following the theft of a diamond necklace on their property, he committed suicide in prison. Now Assane executes a series of bloodless crimes inspired by Lupin’s capers to provide for his teenage son (Etan Simon), possibly win back his ex-wife (Ludivine Sagnier — how I’ve missed watching her act), and uncover the real culprits from the long-ago jewel heist.
Omar Sy is best known in France for starring in the feel-good comedy The Intouchables, though you’re more likely to recognize him from his English-language roles in Jurassic World and X-Men: Days of Future Past. He and series creator George Kay make Assane into an engrossing action hero, a big man who can fight but prefers to operate by stealth, as well as a social chameleon who acts and dresses to blend in whether he’s with street thugs in the banlieues or celebrities at glitzy cocktail parties. He uses social media to bamboozle people in high places, and his facility with technology reaches frightening levels when he blackmails a crooked cop (Vincent Garanger) by making a deepfake video of the detective bragging about raping little boys. The role here gives Sy a chance to show nimbleness and agility (especially when he plants a stolen jewelry item during a violent struggle) as well as project the serene confidence of a man who gets himself sent to prison knowing that he can easily break out whenever he wishes.
The first three episodes are directed by Louis Leterrier. I’ve always found him to be a hack as a film director (Now You See Me, The Incredible Hulk), but he’s perfectly equipped to supply what the show requires, which is action sequences with a high degree of visual gloss. The first episode takes place in the Louvre, where Assane goes undercover as a janitor and then as a VIP guest. Leterrier doesn’t waste the location, with Assane’s brain-dead conspirators crashing a getaway car through the museum’s glass pyramid entrance. Along with the direction, the lush orchestral music by Mathieu Lamboley is enough to convince us that we’re watching a Black James Bond in action.
For all the show’s vibe of poofy escapism, it has points to make about racism in France, as Assane frequently slips beneath people’s notice by posing as servants, waiters, and other workers anonymous to the higher-ups. He trades places with an African prison inmate (Athaya Monkozi) whom he does not resemble in the least, and the only ones who notice are the other Black prisoners. The Pellegrinis are a formidable enemy, led by a patriarch (Hervé Pierre) who buys off cops and uses the mainstream media outlets that he owns to suppress Assane’s discoveries. The only police detective who’s worth anything is an Arab guy (Soufiane Guerrab).
The initial season consists of 10 episodes, but Netflix leaves off after the fifth one, with Assane and his ex-wife frantically searching for their son after he’s abducted at the Needle of Étretat, a pilgrimage site for Lupin fans. How this resolves remains to be seen this summer, when Netflix releases the last installments, or by contacting your TV-watching friends in France. I could stand to see Assane do more damage to the Pellegrinis than he has so far. Regardless, Lupin is not only an enjoyable show but also a sign that French entertainment is becoming a less white and more interesting place.