Opening 19 May 2016
In the late 1880s George Footit (Thierrée) performed as a clown in Delvaux’s (Pierrot) French circus. In the search for a partner, he met an African named Chocolat (Sy). His first reaction was, “I’m looking for a clown, not a black guy,” but soon they bonded and worked out a show. The white clown and the dumb August was already a concept and Chocolat reenacted typical black stereotypes to make people laugh. Footit emphasized the importance of having money and achieving goals. Chocolat seemed more apt to accept the present with little expectations of the future. The circus travelled from town to town and their popularity rose quickly until they were booked to perform in Paris – the ultimate goal of all artists. Chocolat’s wife, Marie (Hesme), divorced her first husband to marry him, which was certainly a scandal in those days. Success brought not only accolades, but undesirable inspection from the police, who sniffed for a non-existing residency permit and Chocolat landed in jail. Also, enemies envious of the success of a black man suddenly came out of nowhere. Success lasted 15 years.
The film is based on the true story of Raphaël Padilla, who was born a slave in Cuba, either 1865 or 1868 (He died in 1917.). By 1886 he was working in the Nouveau Cirque in Paris and in 1895 he hooked up with Footit. Neither the director nor the two main actors had ever heard of Chocolat until around 2009/2011. Until that time, it was generally believed that the first successful black performer in France was Josephine Baker (1906-1975). As director Zem was considering this film, author Gérard Moiriel brought out his book Chocolat clown négre. Also, black actor Omar Sy starred in the hit movie Ziemlich beste Freunde (Intouchables) in 2011, ending the search for a suitable actor for this role. James Thierrée grew up with a circus background, i.e., parents who worked in this field, thus making him also perfect for the role. Small details support this excellent movie: flashbacks, life in the Belle Epoque, as well as valuable information about an extraordinary person, whom we should all wish to know. (Becky Tan)