US film star Samuel L. Jackson met young people in a poor Paris suburb Tuesday, spotlighting deprived districts that mainstream French cinema, like its politicians, is accused of neglecting.
Jackson broke off his holidays along with his wife Latanya Richardson to visit Bondy, which was among many suburban districts or "banlieues" hit in 2005 by violent protests sparked by tensions between police and youths.
Jackson, 61, a black actor who grew up in the southern state of Tennessee at the time of racial segregation, drew parallels with the tensions that smoulder today in France's deprived immigrant districts, crippled by unemployment.
"When I was a small child... I actually believed I was a second-class citizen," he told a gathering in the eastern Paris suburb. "But my parents believed very strongly in me getting a good education."
He insisted that "of course" one day France could, like the United States, have a black president.
"I never believed that in my lifetime there would be an African-American president," he said.
"That was made possible because young people found out that their voice meant something," he added. "You are a voting bloc. You have the energy, the power to change the laws that need changing."
Jackson is known as the black-suited, Bible-quoting LA hitman Jules Winnfield in Quentin Tarantino's cult 1994 movie "Pulp Fiction", and the title role of the cop "Shaft" in a 2000 remake of the New York crime classic.
He said his favourite recent French film was "A Prophet", a jail drama about a young criminal from an immigrant background, which broke from the French film industry's regular run of middle-class comedies and glossy action films.
"We pictured a nation where it's like those Luc Besson films where everybody's doing 'parkour' and they're running along the walls," Jackson joked, referring to an extreme stunt technique used in Besson's banlieue fantasy "District 13".
"We're just making sure that's not really true," Jackson added.
His visit was set up by the US ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, a former entertainment industry executive who has run various cultural projects to reach out to the banlieues since his appointment by Obama last year.
Tuesday's gathering was staged in offices used by the Bondy Blog, an online news source set up during the 2005 riots.
The blog came to be regarded as a useful source as reporters grappled with coverage of neighbourhoods that had received relatively little media attention.
"It's important for us to give a different image of the banlieue, because we have been rather stigmatised by the press due to the riots," said Khir-Din Grid, a 23-year-old student and aspiring film-maker.
"I am very happy that Samuel L. Jackson comes, but what I'd like to see is those in power in France, as well as actors and film-makers... come here and talk to the young people," he told AFP.
Nacim Ben Younes, a local 21-year-old student and aspiring actor, said he was "inspired" by Jackson but complained that as usual journalists and officials hogged the microphone and few of the young locals' voices were heard.
"He said you have to be ready to seize opportunities, but will there always be opportunities that come? I'm afraid of never getting that opportunity," he told AFP.
"There are only two or three film-makers in France who are interested in the banlieue," he added, naming among them Jacques Audiard, whose "A Prophet" was nominated for an Oscar this year and won several awards at France's equivalent, the Cesars.
"It's very difficult to become an actor in France," Younes said. "Casting agents ask if you're from the banlieue and you're just not taken seriously."Reuse content