Dirt: The French Show Slyly Decolonizing Netflix

There are no signs of grandeur or virtue signaling on Mortel.

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Molly Lipson on a different kind of supernatural series

Netflix is saturated with Americanisms. It’s not just the sheer volume of American shows and films on the platform, it’s the mannerisms that have ingratiated themselves into the global industry: the shot style and costumes, racial hierarchies and twee morality tales.

Not in Mortel, though. The French show about three teenagers who are bound together by supernatural forces and their search for clues to a recent murder is full of decolonized imagery, tone, characters and storyline. Having just dropped its second season on Netflix, there are no signs of grandeur, no virtue signaling. Instead, it showcases voodoo, stars mostly Black characters and characters of color and distorts conceptions of time and space.

Moral ambiguity

A distinguishing feature of Mortel is the moral ambiguity of its characters. Unlike many high school dramas or bildungsroman tales with traditional heroes and villains — think Saved by the Bell or Riverdale — this show subverts the binary. According to the show’s creator Frédéric Garcia, this was an intentional move away from the Americanized biblical inferences of ‘good’ and ‘evil’. For example, Obé, the spirit who straddles our world and the land of the dead, is not (just) a murderous, power-hungry demon. Instead, we learn that he is deeply lonely and requires a human sacrifice so he can remain on Earth and develop human connection.

Voodoo

Voodoo, or voudon, is usually depicted in film and TV as a form of devil-worship and the manipulation of a pin-stick doll. In reality, voodoo is a religion like any other. Although great effort has been exerted to portray the Afro-Haitian practice as anti-Christian, it is in fact infused with Roman Catholicism as a result of the mass kidnapping of West Africans enslaved in French-owned Haiti. In Mortel we see Elizabeth clutching a rosary whilst delivering a voodoo ritual, highlighting the colonial origins of the once-underground practice.

The set

There are no glossy high schools or ornamental staircases in Mortel, nor are the landscapes the main focus in this show. The low-income neighborhood in which the series is set shows a normal French town with normal French people, where very abnormal things are taking place. The dulled greys of the sprawling housing estates and run-down school corridors help emphasize Obé’s fiery presence, his arrival on screen enveloped in a red glare, face adorned with lava-filled glasses.

Contorted spacetime

Parts of the plot are non-linear, discarding chronological action in favor of contorted spacetime. Here, Luisa stares into the camera on a road trip to find her boyfriend’s childhood abuser – the next moment we see her waking up in an entirely different place. For the whole episode, both scenes happen concurrently without any explanation, hinting at ideas of Afrofuturism in exploring how the all-Black Désandans (Creole for descendants) can surpass colonized and capitalist concepts of time to connect with spirits and voodoo ritual.  

Race

The blackface common of films in the first-half of the 20th century has been replaced in recent decades by white characters playing people of color and Black roles: Jake Gyllenhaal as the Prince of Persia; Angeline Jolie as Afro-Cuban journalist Mariane Pearl in A Mighty Heart. This whitewashing is often based on the myth that films starring black and POC characters won’t sell at the box office and will make audiences feel they ‘can’t relate’ to the storylines.

Mortel, though by no means perfect, substantially subverts this. While not the main focus of the show, many of the main and supporting characters (and actors) are Black and people of color. Although it shouldn’t be, this is unusual for a popular Netflix show in 2021. Often, Black characters are sidekicks or stereotypes, and predominantly Black shows often touch on topics like drugs, gangs and poverty. This is not a criticism —these are lived experiences in some communities across Europe and North America — but it does make it easy for shows where race is not the main focus to cast mainly white actors, not only excluding talent but also reinforcing white dominance. — By Molly Lipson

The Dirt: Normal people, abnormal stuff.