LUPIN (Netflix, 2021)

Why casting a Black man rather than a smug-ish prick white guy in the role of the famous French gentleman burglar is timely social commentary and adds a much needed layer of depth to the aspect of disguise and social stealth & playing roles.

Warning: the end of this post contains spoilers for the cliffhanger of the series!

The story follows professional thief Assane Diop, the only son of an immigrant from  Senegal  who had come to France to seek a better life for his child. Assane’s father is framed for the theft of an expensive diamond necklace by his employer, the wealthy and powerful Hubert Pellegrini, and hangs himself in his prison cell out of shame, leaving the teenage Assane an orphan. Twenty-five years later, inspired by a book about  gentleman thief Arsène Lupin his father had given him on his birthday, Assane sets out to get revenge on the Pellegrini family, using his charisma and mastery of thievery, subterfuge, and disguise to expose Hubert’s crimes. ([x](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lupin_(TV_series)))

The first episode is really smartly done because it plays into our own biases and what makes us buy the role of Assane Diop as a down on his luck, struggling janitor, for the simple fact that he’s Black. This intro into his character would not have worked if he’d been played by a white actor. They could have done it by showing us Assane living the way he does, pretty well, lots of antique books and with a lovely view, they could have shown us that first and then could have had that voiceover “He’s a man who can slip into any role,” they could have shown us his transformation from, you know, big man with a big walk, well-dressed, into janitor, hood up, hunched shoulders, completely different posture (reminds me of Christopher Reeve playing Clark Kent/Superman, the way Omar Sy uses his physicality to act this part) in the beginning. To establish that side of his character, that trap door, in his socio-economic status very early on.

But it gives us that role that he’s playing in the first episode, or one of them, and melds it with his real life: his ex-girlfriend with whom he has a son, Raoul. It’s ambiguous, in the beginning, how much she knows of his real life, until further down the line we learn that she’s known him since he was a teen. She knows. It rounds it all off into that role and really makes us believe it: because he’s a young Black man in France. We’re ready to accept the first impression of him that we get because we, the audience, are just as biased as the world around him. Not because we believe that that is what Assane deserves, but because we believe it’s plausible that that is how the world he lives in works. Because it’s the world we live in.

It facilitates systemic racism being perpetuated. It makes it easier, for the show, to sell us that this is where he’s at, the same way that he’s selling it to everyone around him on that con. And it’s not a gotcha, it’s not necessarily an indictment of the audience. But it is an indictment of the things we grew up internalising and that which we all must unlearn. When, at the end, the show shows us who he really is and how he transforms from the janitor back into Assane Diop, that is the transformation you are meant to see. That’s the transformation that really matters. The one from make-believe to reality, because the make-believe reality had you goin’ there for a minute, didn’t it? You thought this was the origin story.

And it comes in the form of asking yourself whether viewers would have been more surprised to see him in his actual living situation and well-made clothes: would they have believed him an impostor?

This way shows that Omar is an amazing actor because, right off the bat, he’s playing a character playing another character, a role, as our first introduction to him; and we’re seeing him play more roles and more of those characters as the series goes, sometimes utilising more elaborate disguises but frequently preferring social stealth. It shows us how completely he embodies those roles, and it also takes the lid off the unconscious bias because this kind of intro would not have worked with a white character. It would have worked from a technical and acting standpoint, but it wouldn’t have made the same point. On a white character, it wouldn’t have been smug. It would have shown us a white guy “in his rightful place” (the quotation marks are doing a lot of the heavy lifting here, so let me be clear that that’s not what I’m saying, it’s what the narrative could have been interpreted to say). It would have been obnoxious. But for Assane, it raises the stakes and subverts expectations, in the text and the subtext.

It’s made text at the auction, when the auctioneer expresses surprise at Assane’s rich character’s “youth.” We all know that that’s not the word he was reaching for. With a white guy, it never would have been disbelieved. But with a Black man, they check his Wikipedia article, and he knew that. So he set it up in advance.

Especially as we learn more about his childhood, the way his father struggled to support them both. If a white guy had said those things to the small-time criminals he enlists to help him steal the necklace, about “them” not seeing, not really looking; it wouldn’t have rung completely hollow, but it would have been severely undercut. When he runs with those guys, he’s playing them, but they think they’re playing him.

That’s the genius of choosing a janitor and then a rich entrepreneur as his dual covers for the first episode — nothing too out there, nothing that requires prosthetics or a false beard. Just a few different clothes and an attitude. It showcases the duality, the range of Assane’s (and Omar Sy’s) acting skills, and the fact that this man does not fit into any box you’ll try to put him in. He can become anyone. And when you watch him be a janitor or a rich guy, ask yourself, which one to you feels more like a cover? Which one feels more like a role?

No matter how rich Assane is, he’ll always be disregarded for the colour of his skin. If they’d cast a white man, then the minute he worked himself up to riches, he’d hold so much privilege over so many, it would have rendered his gentleman thief shtick a lot more complacent.

Here comes the spoiler warning! Skip this next paragraph if you haven’t seen it yet.

Left to right: Raoul (Etan Simon), Claire (Ludivine Sagnier), and Assane (Omar Sy) 🙂

The central relationships in LUPIN exist along the axis of how much the person knows about his true life; and how ignorance and/or plausible deniability and secrets impact the relationship. He has a history with almost everyone involved in this first part of the series, and it really informs how he acts around them, of course, but it also adds more facets to the number of roles he plays. The real wild card, I think, is Youssef, the policeman who’s figured out his disguises and who appears at the very end, after Assane and Claire have started searching for Raoul. The dread of that scene really built up and up, and then that reveal was like taking a pin to a balloon. I really, really hope that Youssef might help them find Raoul, and that he might be an ally on the inside? The police aren’t bumbling fools, which I enjoy, even though so far they have been a few steps behind. They have realised that something’s up with the Commissioner, and I’m hoping that Youssef will help Assane dismantle at least some of that from the inside.