Mati Diop’s ‘Atlantics’ Is a Startling Study of Power

Mati Diop’s ‘Atlantics’ Is a Startling Study of Power

Mati Diop’s ‘Atlantics’ Is a Startling Study of Power

As the contemporary film landscape heralds the coming of a class war, Diop’s beautiful movie reckons with capital and labor in groundbreaking fashion.


The great class war is coming. So the last decade’s films seem to be promising—or warning—us. Class conflict has long been an undercurrent in independent films, but now it’s rising in the mainstream, even in Hollywood blockbusters like Christopher Nolan’s 2012 The Dark Knight Rises and Taika Waititi’s 2017 Thor: Ragnorak.

We can perhaps trace the trend back to the recession. Sorry to Bother You, Boots Riley’s brilliant satire of gentrification in Oakland, California, came out in 2018, but he wrote the script in 2012. Hustlers came out this year, but it’s based on real events after the 2008 market collapse; Jennifer Lopez and Constance Wu play strippers who drug their Wall Street clients in order to steal their money and buy each other fur coats—robbin’ for the hood, so to speak. Because these films are set in America, race and gender sometimes conceal the class tensions. Most audiences assumed Jordan Peele’s Us was about race because it follows a bourgeois black family being pursued by their doubles, the “tethered,” who inhabit an underground warren. But the film also played with an intriguing mix of class signifiers. Its spooky doppelgängers walk around in fashionable prison jumpsuits, wielding scissors made of gold, wearing hairstyles more hipster than busted. With Bernie Sanders’s slogan “Not me. Us.” flitting over social media, I find myself thinking back to the film’s central question: Who is “us”?

Class warfare is a popular theme in recent international films as well. Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, which won three Academy Awards, is an incisive examination of Mexico’s class divisions in the 1970s, not just between members of a middle-class family and the women who work for them but also in Mexico City at large. A key scene in the film stages El Halconazo, the 1971 Corpus Christi massacre in which paramilitary forces gunned down more than 100 protesters. Korean director Bong Joon-ho’s Snowpiercer, based on a French graphic novel, parodied class conflict by setting it on a train divided into literal first- and second-class cars, and his latest film, Parasite, has been hailed as a class warfare hit—notwithstanding all the awards buzz from the most elite of film institutions.

Isn’t there always this class tension around these films about class tensions? Who gets to make them? Who gets to watch them? Who gets the recognition? Who gets the money? During the production of Roma, a group claiming to be city workers allegedly tried to shut down the filming and assaulted the crew, stealing cellphones, wallets, and jewelry. The noise surrounding the films becomes an ironic echo of their clamor over inequality.

After a special screening of Parasite in New York City last month, a homeless guy asked me and my friend for a cigarette. As my friend gave him one, the guy asked us what the movie was about. “World War III?” he joked. “Kind of!” I said, laughing. “Would I like it?” he asked. We couldn’t say “yes” in good conscience. Later I read an interview with Bong about Parasite in Rolling Stone in which he was asked if he believes “the class gap can be bridged—that chasm that currently separates the haves and have nots?” He replied, “I think my answer to that question is the last scene of the movie,” in which class tensions erupt into violence. “I wanted to be honest with the fear we all feel right now.” Again, contortions of translation aside: Who is “we”?

Because of its title, American viewers will likely assume that Atlantics, the new film from the French Senegalese director Mati Diop, is about either slavery or refugees. Even after seeing it, they may assume it is about love or ghosts or exoticized life on the west coast of Africa. But Atlantics is fundamentally about class. Despite the familiar trappings of esteem—like Parasite, it won a prestigious award at Cannes, and Diop’s family background suggests that she is the epitome of an Afropolitan elite—the way it reckons with capital and labor is far more interesting than this recent spate of class warfare films. Atlantics cannot overthrow film as an institution, but it does overthrow many of film’s formal conventions. In so doing, it wreaks havoc with the interlocking hierarchy of class, race, and gender that most of these other films assume, leaving in its wake a startling study of power in the raw.

Atlantics begins on a dusty construction site on the outskirts of Dakar. A great glass tower is being built. The workers have not been paid in months. There’s a chaos of figures and sounds, human and mechanical, on the screen as the men demand their due from their boss or, rather, their boss’s underlings, one of whom says, “In this office, we’re working, just like you.” An irate worker named Souleiman (Ibrahima Traoré)—the camera’s focus suggests he’s our hero—expands the circle of consequence, saying, “Remember that we have families.” Another worker chimes in, “Our fathers, mothers, and brothers depend on us. They’re the reason we work.” This line about inter-dependence will become an uncanny foreshadowing.

The workers head home, crowded in the back of a pickup truck that zips along the sea. Crouched over, they comfort one another—or so it seems; they could be stoking their anger—by singing and rocking rhythmically. We’re more used to seeing this kind of scene feature mourning women in a film like this. Souleiman makes his way alone to some railroad tracks. Through the gaps in a passing train, we see on the other side a tall young woman (Mame Bineta Sane) with a messy bun. Her friend, who has her hair covered, is haranguing her, asking, “Ada, you’re still seeing that guy?” Ada and Souleiman exchange an exquisitely knowing glance. She smiles, laughs; he tilts his head, waits. The acting is subtle, believable, the substrate of the film’s touch of the real. The scene is deft—we immediately sense they’re in love—and disarming: Midshot, the rushing train switches direction on screen, and that’s how we know we’re now with Ada, watching Souleiman.

This abrupt change in point of view is the first in a series of disconcerting shifts. After an interrupted scene of tender love by the sea, we follow Ada, our new hero. It seems we are in a star-crossed romance. We learn that Ada loves Souleiman but is set to marry a rich man named Omar in 10 days. She slips out that night with her more adventurous girlfriends—their perfect names are Fanta and Dior—to a seaside bar to meet Souleiman and his friends. But when the women get there, they learn that the men have gone. “Out to sea. They went in a pirogue.” The women stand around in their tight nightclub clothes, clutching their cell phones. They are like so many modern Penelopes, except that their men are economic migrants, not sailors. One woman’s little brother can’t even swim.

You might imagine that this is where the titular Atlantic would become the route to a global tragedy, that we would now shift back to Souleiman’s point of view to experience the horrors of the refugee at sea. But as Diop said in an interview with The New York Times, she did not want to reproduce that familiar “attraction of destruction.” Instead, she makes the remarkable move of staying with the women, with Ada, who, in another unanticipated turn, is simply allowed to be brokenhearted. We do not pity the “poor African woman”; we relate to her. She stays in bed for days. She weeps. She has a vision or perhaps a dream—it is narrated in voiceover as a kind of surreal folktale while she sleeps—that Souleiman has drowned and been caught in a fisherman’s net. She waits and waits for him to call.

At a luxurious resort by the sea within view of that great glass tower, we meet Omar, who gives Ada an iPhone as a wedding gift. She thanks him, curls on her side, covers her face with a towel, and sleeps. Her head is covered when their wedding night comes too, in a black veil fringed with embroidery. After a stilted, quasi-formal ceremony at Omar’s house, Ada shows her envious friends her marriage bed, a white satin affair made garish by fluorescent light. She sulks as they take selfies. She argues with them about whether she can stomach her marriage of convenience. Without warning, the shiny white bed is on fire. The police arrive. Who did it? Ada? Her heat, her fury? Souleiman, whom a guest claims to have seen? Or did it spontaneously combust?

The last explanation is the one given to Inspector Issa Diop (Amadou Mbow), whom we are now unexpectedly following. Is he our hero now? How will his story connect with the lovers’? We are again caught off guard as the film abruptly becomes a police procedural and then, when a mysterious fever strikes the inspector and all the abandoned women except Ada, transforms once more into a work of surrealism. By the time the women are stalking the night—barefoot, in nighties and pajamas, eyes like white pebbles—demanding the money owed their dead men, we realize that Atlantics is all of these genres and none of these genres. It is in a class of its own.

Labor drama, love story, surrealist film, crime thriller, zombie flick—these shifts are both smooth and unsettling, just like that train in sudden reverse. They keep us on edge but never just for the sake of it. And they continually bring us back to the central question of class, even as they keep us from mapping it onto a single hero or plot or genre. In a recent interview with Vulture, Diop explains, “The violence of a certain capitalist economy makes a lot of life fragile, vulnerable, and empty of meaning. The film is about the beauty and innocence of love between two 20-year-olds, which is ruined and cut down by economic issues.” She cast those roles with first-time actors; Traoré was a real construction worker. “I was looking for people who have a social background that makes them connected with the reality of the characters.” No heavy-handed symbols like stairs, tunnels, or train cars here, no sense that class stratification is just a horror or a farce. Instead, Atlantics holds onto social reality even as it darts among genres freely, wildly, faster and faster, building to a double climax that unites all of their vibrant formal energies: a scene of vengeance, a scene of lovemaking, both set in a kind of grave.

Atlantics speaks the tongue of beauty. Moonrise, sunset. Reflective glass, shards of mirror. Fluttering curtains, gauzy ones. Rosy light, constellated lights. Filigree waves, the vast implacable sea. This is less conscientious adornment—the use of beauty to elevate or solemnify people—and more a kind of art-film language game. The film’s beauty feels casual and quotidian. The dawn color of sulfur streetlamps, the spangle of embroidery on a boubou, a trail of cash littering an interior like trash. You can trace delicate patterns like this across the film: spotlight, moon, lighthouse, cell phone, dead eyes, signet ring. Or hijab, curtain, towel, veil, blanket, mask, the sea. But none of these patterns add up to a message. Rather, they weave a material form within which Diop twists plot and genre.

That is, the film’s imagery is on the same plane as its story. So the moon isn’t just beautiful; it tells time, flashing from sliver to full in order to signal that the 10 days until the wedding have passed. The sunset isn’t just sublime; it marks the onset of the fever that may be turning people into djinns. And mirrors become the way we understand how demonic possession, if that’s what it is, works in the film. We see reflected in the glass the dead men, the drowned laborers, whose souls have taken over the bodies of the living. Science fiction has lately given us scenes—in Her, in Blade Runner 2049—of a man having sex with a woman who is inside a woman, be it a sex worker lip-synching to an OS or one enveloped by a holograph. Atlantics uses a simple mirror to give us the converse. We watch a man kiss Ada; her reflection makes love to another, the one who possesses him. And this eerie scene takes place in the nightclub by the sea, again not for beauty’s sake but because Ada has run away from her family and now works there.

This attention to material reality is another way that Atlantics thwarts our expectations about class. Many of the recent international films tend to make it legible and palatable to audiences in the West. The working classes are maids, nannies, drivers, tutors; in Parasite, the Korean upper-class family is easily replaced with a German one. I’d love to interview Americans leaving the theater after watching Atlantics. Are these Senegalese characters rich or poor? What class are they? The women have hair weaves and take selfies. They wear T-shirts, possibly second-hand, that say “Froot Loops” or “Chicago.” Everyone is black. Everyone has a cell phone. Ada casually sells hers on the side of a dirt road where a man in flashy sports gear goes for a run past horse-drawn carts. Her parents take her to a modern clinic for a doctor to test if she is a virgin.

There’s obviously little gender equality here, but Atlantics interestingly levels male and female labor. Zombified women sit on the edge of a tombstone and count thousands of bills. The debt is finally paid, but before the boss can go, they demand one more thing: “Dig our graves first.” As he pickaxes the earth—a sight that, again, we’re more used to seeing in a pastoral farming scene in an African film—the women mock him. “Look, he doesn’t even know how to dig. That’s real work! Dig till your hands burn.” Though the words belong to the manual laborers who lie “unburied…at the bottom of the ocean” for having sought to survive elsewhere, the mouths speaking those words belong to women of the night. That kind of global labor, too, is never paid in full.

In its origins in Arabian thought, a djinn can be good or bad. In its origins in the black diaspora, a zombie is a slave forced to do the bidding of others. Diop mixes the two phenomena to the same counterintuitive end: The dispossessed—male and female, management and labor—rise up not as the enemy but as the communal hero. Atlantics doesn’t care to translate these cultural references. It assumes them and proceeds to tell its resonant story about power, a story that does not pander to our preconceptions about how class, race, and gender map onto it. This is refreshing and clarifying. This film made me realize that class in the 21st century is really not about who gets to own luxury fur coats, as Hustlers would have it, or about the smell of subway riders, as Parasite would have it. It’s not about the Global North and Global South. It’s not even about the rich and the poor. It’s about the very rich and us—the rest of us, everywhere.

We are the Atlantics. The sea is the sweat of the great majority trying to live, love, and work. “I’ll always taste the salt of your body in the sweat of mine,” Ada tells her doubled lover, whom (blessedly) she does not wed. He leaves her sleeping. Dawn suffuses the screen. Ada awakens. As she rises and turns toward us, her final voiceover tells us that the whole film has been preface to some raging fire to come: “Last night will stay with me to remind me who I am and show me who I will become. Ada, to whom the future belongs. I am Ada.”

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