Where Are All of the Black People in ‘Lupin’?

Netflix’s newest bingeable heist series plays with race, but insists on doing so in a lily-white version of Paris.

In Lupin, Netflix’s new French heist series, the first score takes place below the Louvre. Having joined the building’s janitorial crew weeks before, Assane Diop (Omar Sy) ascends into the opulent showrooms of the historic museum, transforming with the scenery from musty custodian to self-made tuxedoed playboy. The seamlessness of his metamorphosis nods at Assane’s Blackness — singular among the snowflake elite in the Louvre, nondescript among members of the working class in its bowels.

We’ve seen this fish-out-of-water juxtaposition before: Think Sammy Davis Jr. in Ocean’s 11. But in Lupin, as viewers get to know Assane Diop, it becomes clear that this is a key element of his shtick: he wields stereotypes, his presumed poverty and criminality, against his marks. In fact, race plays a central role throughout the show, which has lodged comfortably in Netflix’s “Trending” carousel since its January 8 release. But it too rarely bears fruit, desiccated by its own fantastical backdrop. The fictional world cherry-picks systematic racial dynamics from reality and simply erases Blackness elsewhere, begging the question: How could a vision of 21st century Paris — with its rich history of Black and Brown migration and creation — be so unseasoned?

Lupin’s creators are keyed in on that conversation, with the thieves frequently taking advantage of racism’s inherent irrationality. But the same can’t be said about the setting where the characters are based.

Arsène Lupin first originated as a character in Maurice Leblanc’s 1905 thriller, The Arrest of Arsène Lupin, where the master of disguise is apprehended for the first time on a cruise ship. In that collection, he breaks out of prison, wears a number of disguises, and makes all of the girls blush. Over his 115 years of existence, the gentlemanly thief has been interpreted over various forms of media, from texts and comics to anime and video games. George Kay and François Uzan’s new rendition of the character casts him in modern-day Paris as a Senegalese refugee with his father, Babakar, who experienced the desperation of poverty and the violence of the prison system.

In his latest incarnation, Assane moves through White worlds with relative ease. And for a show about getting over on the wealthy, that shit is riveting to watch, especially at a time when the schisms between the rich and the rest (specifically Black folks) are so publicly discussed and disseminated. Lupin’s creators are keyed in on that conversation, with the thieves frequently taking advantage of racism’s inherent irrationality. But the same can’t be said about the setting where the characters are based.

Lupin begins with realism in its mythmaking. Twenty-five years prior to the events of the show, when his father is framed for theft and dies in jail of an apparent suicide, young Assane latches on to the last totem of his memory — a collection of Arsène Lupin adventures — as the hub of his aesthetic and moral conscience. He’s an orphan who goes through social services before catching a break, thanks to the wealthy White woman who may be responsible for his father’s imprisonment. Assane lands in the city’s best private school, inundated in the upper echelons of Parisian society, a world he learns to navigate with guile and courage.

It’s clear how Assane’s past inspires the heists of his present, all with the goal of discovering the truth behind his father’s demise. His charm is a superpower — he’s got a brilliant smile, broad shoulders, and is dexterous enough to play rom-com or action star with equal gravity. Unfortunately, we’re rarely led to understand how his Blackness shapes his identity.

In a flashback scene during the first episode, a teenaged Assane is seen nervously entering a swimming pool owned by the family he and his father served as domestic workers. Juliette, a daughter of the White, wealthy Pellegrini family, peruses a magazine while sunbathing nearby in a bright yellow one-piece, disheveled curls falling by her ears. As she exhales cigarette smoke, she notices Assane, who insists that he has permission to be on the premises as he gingerly toes the shallow end. The power imbalance is palpable — and it’s not just because Juliette is slightly older than Assane. She’s in command.

“Is what I hear about Black people true?” she asks.

“What?” Assane grimaces.

“Black people can’t swim,” Juliette says with a laugh.

Assane, perhaps without thinking, replies, “I can swim.”

“Swim to me and I’ll kiss you.”

Assane thinks about it, jumps in, struggles a bit, but makes it to the other side. And… she kisses him. It’s an odd, awkward scene meant to portray the nature of their relationship. But the racial dynamic — Assane acquiescing to the desire and whim of an older White girl — is never really explored. It’s plopped in the beginning of the series without real contemplation.

Later, in the second episode, Assane breaks into a prison in search of a clue about his father’s death. As seen with the Louvre custodial staff, we encounter Black and Brown men. And again, we see how race separates Assane in White spaces and cloaks him in those that are stereotypically Black. Assane convinces one of these inmates that despite a lack of any resemblance (though they’re mysteriously wearing the same dirty green pullover) the guards will think they’re the same person. And it works: He frees the man and breaks into prison because there are so many Black men housed there that no one would be able to tell the difference. It’s a crude and obvious observation on the prison-industrial complex that Lupin makes no effort to directly address. Instead, the series casts Assane as a special Black man, a token tossed in a lily field. It makes the choice to depict other Black people as prisoners or blue-collar employees eyebrow-raising. Clearly, race exists and functions similarly in this world as it does in our own. So why all the fantastical erasure?

While watching the show, I began to wonder whether Assane has ever spent meaningful time with Black people outside of his own father and biracial son. He fancies himself as smarter than the targets of his heists, yet he only seeks out White people for his team. The fence he employs to trade his swiped goods? The White dude who defended him against racist bullies at the aforementioned private school. The journalist that he seeks to help him go public with corruption within the Pellegrini family? A White author and whistleblower, Fabienne Beriot, who, in an intense conversation with Assane, dares to say that a “woman like her” is treated like trash and left at the bottom. The scene makes the series’ complete omission of Black women — who in reality, are harassed and degraded in all lanes of society — all the more glaring (and weird). Had Beroit been cast as a Black woman, her plight might have seemed more believable.

Aside from the occasional background talent, there’s no indication that Black women might exist in either the thrilling underworld that Assane traffics or the lush maximalism of the French elite. So where are they? Assane vows revenge for his father but has very little to say about his mother, who is even absent in old photographs. Despite minor references — enough to perhaps forecast Assane’s mother showing up in a later episode — it seems like a gross oversight. The impact that the erasure of Black women has on the show becomes increasingly noticeable, taking the viewer out of its fun and stimulating world. With no Black associates to speak of, Assane seems alone in an unfathomably strange land. It’s fair to wonder if his brilliance, cunning, and wit would be nearly as special if he didn’t seem to be a token.

The role that Black people play in Lupin wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the series wasn’t so intentional about leaning on race and racism (à la its British cousin Luther). Instead, Lupin goes out of its way to subvert the marriage of race and criminality. It attracts our eyes to a void, tearing the fabric of a potentially exciting backdrop. This Paris, the one we are left with, is an eerie White feminist fantasy with a Black man operating beneath a burdensome White gaze. He moves through it with grace and agility, carrying the show itself on his shoulders. But the magic isn’t there; it’s lost to fantasy. And what is Paris without its magic?

African from Texas• Staff Writer at LEVEL • Black politics, Celebrity interviews, TV & Film Criticism • Previously: MTV News, San Francisco Chronicle

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