An Afro-European:

Interview with Félicité Wouassi, by Ayoko Mensah

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Brought to the public eye in Thomas Gilou’s film Black micmac, 38-year-old Félicité Wouassi, who is of Cameroonian origin, incarnates a generation of actors who lie at the crossroads between two continents, two cultures, two cinemas. Her talent, brimming with energy, explodes on both the screen and on stage.

Is it easy for you, as an African actress, to work in France?
I see myself more as an Afro-European… I came to France at the age of 13. A few years ago, I ended up asking for French nationality. I feel at home today. Just like the Afro-Americans in the United States, I would like people to speak about Afro-European actors. Of course, it is not easy for Black actors to work in France. But it isn’t easy for anyone. Having said that, European film is using more and more Black actors. I have noticed this from the way the professional make-up artists have adapted. They didn’t know how to make us up in the past. Today, they have a whole range of dark foundation (laughter).
Have you suffered from the stereotypes concerning Africans in your roles?
It is true that I have had enough of the maid, whore, nurse roles people endlessly offer me… All actors are confronted with the problem of the label people want to confine them to. I continue to refuse roles which are based uniquely on the colour of my skin, which lack humanness. Being Black does not suffice to define a character. Having said that, mentalities are changing… I have less run-ins with European filmmakers than ten years ago. At that time, you really wondered what planet they were on. I remember one of them asking me to take an African accent. I asked him which one? He answered: « I don’t give a damn, as long as it’s a Black accent ». Things are better today, even if comprehension remains difficult with a whole generation of older filmmakers. At the moment, I am playing the role of a woman doctor, who is a specialist in treating Aids, in Vincent Martorana’s film Signes de vie. I like this part because the character’s African origins are simply one characteristic amongst others. She is a woman first and foremost, a doctor… it just so happens that she is African.
Are you in favour of a policy of quotas for Black actors in French film productions?
This strikes me as a serious error. You would have to introduce quotas for Portuguese, Arabic, Chinese actors too. And why not race quotas? This type of thinking is dangerous. What I would prefer is to see big posters of Harlem Désir and Fodé Sylla in the streets, who are European deputies. But no one knows they are. We need more images of Black people, other than rap artists and sports people.
Is that enough to put an end to the clichés surrounding African actors?
No doubt not. But it would enable little Black kids to grow up with other images, to identify via other mediums than sport or music. One of the main problems today is that we, Afro-European actors, are not backed by either the French media, nor by the pan-African media. How do you expect French directors to employ us if they never hear about us? How many articles have been written about Hubert Koundé, William Yontnda or even Isaach de Bankolé, even though he starred in Jim Jarmush’s last film? Alas, very few… And I’m not speaking about the top, immensely talent Black actors, such as Djenny Alpha or Lydia Ewandé, whom the press is incapable of paying homage to. It is not normal.
Are there any anecdotes concerning the colour of your skin which have struck you in your professional career?
It is not really an anecdote, but it really disgusted me. I wasn’t allowed into the national drama school when I passed its entrance exam in the Eighties due to the colour of my skin. At the second selection stage, I performed texts by Senghor and Césaire for the jury, which, at the time, matched my revolt perfectly. The jury gave me 19/20. But Jean-Pierre Miquel, the then director of the school, refused to let me in. « French first », he argued. Luckily, one of the members of the jury, Pierre Vial, who was revolted, invited me into his class… I was able to attend it, but as a foreign student!
You make relatively few films. Why?
It took me a long time to understand that I scare people on the screen… The French are so convinced they are superior that when they see a Black person who is their equal, or even their superior, they are frightened. Even intelligent people. I hate the paternalism some people show us. You become paranoid in this profession as a result of being used, manipulated. I am very wary nowadays.
Do you believe in Black actors’ collectively fighting for better recognition in France?
Instead of speaking about integration, let’s get on with it. By taking our place in society. I think that the combat needs to be individual before being collective. I don’t belong to any corporatist bodies. The community of Black actors knows one another in France, but we have no relations. I am aware of the « Collectif Egalité », set up by Calixthe Beyala, but I have not been contacted. I assume, therefore, that they don’t need me.

///Article N° : 5441

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