The massacres and enslavement common to the process of colonization has offered for centuries past the most visceral and damning evidence of its injustice. The effects of the brutality involved in subjugating one group of human beings under the absolute authority of another group do not limit themselves to the colonized 'natives' who must suffer such conditions, but pass on a stain of poverty, chaos, and violence to their future generations. These consequences manifest even after the colonizers have long abandoned their claim to rule and taken to watching from a distance with only mild discomfort at what their past actions have wrought.
Yet colonization involves not only the imposition of inhuman conditions upon a people, but also foreign customs and culture. Raised within a mindset of unity with the colonizer, the colonized find themselves speaking their oppressors' language, wearing their oppressors' clothing, and taking on their oppressors' ways even as they see themselves clearly excluded from their oppressors' culture as a whole. The colonized become trapped in a limbo between citizen of and foreigner to the colonizing power.
When the natives rise against the authority of the settlers and assert their independence, the legacy of the settlers’ influence cannot be ignored. In Frantz Fanon’s critical work on the process of decolonization, The Wretched of the Earth, he posits the necessity of a revolution absolute in its violence and indiscriminant in its means, seizing upon any tool for driving the colonizers back to their homeland as quickly as possible. In this process, Fanon reasons from the hostility of the native toward the imposition of Western culture and values that only total rejection is the proper response to the natives’ status in limbo.
The Battle of Algiers, depicting the Algerian struggle for independence from France, fulfills the vision set forth in Frantz Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth of the native seizing upon any and all methods of rebellion, but transcends his rejection of Western ways by showing the fighters of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN) embracing and subverting the imposition of French culture and customs toward the struggle for independence.
The dangers of cohabitation
“The settler and the native are old acquaintances,” Fanon declares in the opening pages of his work on colonization, building upon this familiarity to argue for the necessity and inevitability of violent revolution (36). The Battle of Algiers documents this familiarity both visually and in content. French and Algerian passers-by mingle in the streets of the city as natives switch between their own mother-tongue of Arabic and the functionally dominant settlers’ language of French. But this merging of the native and settler does not involve the mutual gravitation of two cultures towards one center, but imposes all obligation of change upon the native. “The settler… has brought the native into existence and perpetuates his existence,” espousing an ideology of unity while maintaining the reality of discrimination and separation (36).
As a perfect example of this hypocrisy, the French troops patrolling the streets of a ghettoized Casbah urge the natives to trust the French army and take pride in their French identity even as Algerians are forced to undergo humiliating body searches and arbitrary arrests, a burden withheld from the ‘real’ French, the white-skinned of Algeria. The natives’ reaction, especially embodied in the activities of the FLN, showcases a concerted hostility toward the imposition of a cultural limbo upon them.
In a violent embodiment of this reaction, the rebel leader Ali la Pointe smacks a cigarette from the mouth of one of the FLN’s members, chastising him for betraying Islamic values by indulging an addiction to Western drugs. “Every time Western values are mentioned they produce in the native a sort of stiffening or muscular lockjaw”—here in the literal movement of muscles as Ali slaps away an imposition of the West (43). Hostility and rebellion go hand-in-hand with the restoration of a native culture as the FLN announces throughout the streets the banning of alcohol within their zone of influence and a bewildered, drunken Frenchman is dragged flailing from the Casbah by a swarm of children, too many to swat away. The helplessness of the Frenchman reflects that of his nation, carried away by the course of events that will eventually result in an idealogical rejection of the West and an independent Algeria.
Yet while Fanon envisions a rejection that encompasses absolutely every element of the West that has pulled the natives into their liminal state between citizen and foreigner, The Battle of Algiers shows a deeper fulfillment of Fanon’s insistence that “the native’s work is to imagine all possible methods for destroying the settler” (93). For among those possibilities, the limbo of the native has its own advantages and utility that can serve the all-encompassing revolution.
Like the evolutionary mechanism of benign species taking on the visual markers of their poisonous cousins, The Battle of Algiers shows the value of mimicry, posing a subtle challenge to Fanon’s assertion that “the settler’s skin is not of any more value than the native’s skin” (45). How else could the women guerrillas of the FLN cross the ubiquitous checkpoints of the Casbah to stage their reprisal bombings of French targets than by the assumption of the privileges of the French in the assumption of their ‘skin.’ Shearing and bobbing their native hair into the fashion of the settler, applying unfamiliar make-up to conceal their darker skin, and donning immodest summer dresses, the bombers subvert their familiarity with the French into a means toward revolution, embracing the West in order to serve the higher aim of ejecting it entirely from their homeland. A major leader of the FLN deftly manipulates a press conference intended to humiliate him even in defeat and capture within utterly foreign surroundings. He casts Algeria in a more noble light using his intimacy with the ways of France. Even in his words, he shows the willingness of the Algerians to mirror the actions of the West if it means freedom for their nation, declaring that the FLN would trade their bombs in handbaskets for bombs dropped from jet fighters if given the chance. By showcasing Fanon’s total revolution, The Battle of Algiers reveals a more complex reaction to the influence of the settler in native life than imagined by Fanon.
Past the event horizon
Faced with an imposed limbo between native culture and Western culture, the rebels of the FLN fulfill Fanon's expectation of a revolution total in its means, but transcend Fanon's rejection by embracing the utility of subverting the culture of the settlers' toward revolutionary aims. The native “discovers reality and transforms it into the pattern of his customs, into the practice of violence, and into his plan for freedom,” an aim that preempts Fanon's idealized vision of an independent land completely rejecting all influence of the West (93). The reality of the Algerians includes the French, an irrevocable bond between them that revolution only binds closer to them in its continuity from the oppression of colonized life to the independence of the post-colonial nation.
It was my task in this essay to write an analysis of a film using an academic theory—critical judgment rather than value judgment. Nonetheless, let me point out now that I do not support Fanon. I find his theories unforgiveably, sickeningly vicious and hold his work responsible for much of the suffering endured by human beings in Africa—white, black, or Arab—in the past half century. I also find the film The Battle of Algiers to be painfully one-sided. It does not serve the understanding of either, however, to attack them without examining and analyzing the structure of violent decolonization on its own terms.