If the last three years are any indication, Omar Sy is here to stay. The charismatic French actor seems to have exploded on the movie screens with The Intouchables, a commercial success in France which earned it’s place in history as the third biggest box office hit the country has seen since 2008. The film also received a fair amount of visibility and praise in the US; not an easy feat for a subtitled comedy with a first generation African as one of its stars.
Despite the fairly sizable buzz generated by The Intouchables and Sy snagging the coveted César Award from his co-star François Cluzet and Jean Dujardin of The Artist fame, not many would have been surprised to see him quickly fade into obscurity, as so many have in the past. Yet, since The Intouchables, the actor has taken advantage of the momentum; relocating to Hollywood and taking supporting roles in blockbusters like X-Men: Days of Future Past, Jurassic World (another international box office record breaker), and Inferno, the long awaited sequel to The DaVinci Code. “The César changed my career and life,” said the actor. Yet those of us experienced with the industry are familiar with the adage, “it takes 10 years to become an overnight success.” One only needs to glance at the actor’s IMDB profile to understand what I mean.
Sy hasn’t strayed too far from his roots, however. He teamed up once again with the writers and directors of The Intouchables to star in Samba. The film opened this past weekend in Los Angeles and I attended a screening at the Landmark Theatre in Westwood to a nearly packed house; no doubt Sy’s attendance at a Q&A after the screening was part of the draw. Samba is the story of an illegal immigrant from Senegal who, after a brush with the authorities, faces deportation. Samba has lived in Paris for 10 years, earning a living from odd catering jobs, supporting his family back home, and following all the rules – of immigrant survival 101 that is. Yet through a twist of fate he falls off his path and life quickly spirals from bad to worse until he finally has to succumb to the possibility of returning to Senegal empty handed and a complete failure.
Immigration is a theme we’re all familiar with and I can’t help but be reminded of titles like Dirty Pretty Things, Otomo and The Invader (which, incidentally stars Isaka Sawadogo, the wonderful Burkinabe actor who stars with Sy in Samba). And while Samba creates space for comedic relief, which makes the film far more enjoyable than it would be without it, it doesn’t completely diminish weaknesses in the plot or excuse the puzzling directions in which the characters occasionally meander. Sy’s enchanting performance carries the film however, as does the support of Charlotte Gainsbourg whose portrayal of the burnt-out and enraged Alice makes you root for these two to get their act together and have a happy ending. When asked about his experience working with Gainsbourg, he said, “I’m so happy I had her for my first love story on screen.”
The timing of Samba’s North American release (Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago as of this weekend) couldn’t have come at more interesting time. With the American presidential campaign underway and the backlash of Donald Trump’s comments about Mexican immigrants, conversations in the political arena tend to disregard the fact that immigrants contribute to the country’s economy. After a scene in which dozens of undocumented workers crowd around a potential employer in hopes of getting a menial job, an elderly woman sitting next to me leaned over to her friend and whispered, “it’s like those Mexican workers looking for jobs over here.” As difficult as it might be for some to imagine that this side of the long romanticized Paris exists, it’s fair to say that scenes like this occur the world over. The film had its French theatrical release during that country’s political campaign, and though the move seems to have been strategic given the fact that immigration is a hot-button topic that inevitably generates interest at these occasions, Sy was resigned in admitting that Samba didn’t heighten people’s interest in the immigrant’s plight. In spite of this, Samba is well worth the effort and an enjoyable watch to boot.
So, what’s on the horizon for Sy? He just finished a film about the first black clown in France called Chocolat and is about to embark on another project in September. The actor doesn’t claim to have a master plan for how he’d like his career to unfold, but he does admit that “the way to a good future is to have a wonderful present” and that “every long trip starts with small steps.”
Samba is being distributed by Broad Green Pictures and hopes to prolong its limited theatrical run through word of mouth and audience support.