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Omar Sy becomes first black actor to win France’s Cesar

  • Sy celebrates after winning the Best Actor award.

PARIS: The star of a French feel-good comedy about a quadriplegic aristocrat and his home-help from the melting-pot suburbs of Paris, became the first black actor to scoop France’s top film award Friday.

Omar Sy, named best actor for his role as a wisecracking male nurse in the box office hit “Intouchables” (Untouchables), becomes the first black actor to scoop a Cesar since the French answer to the Oscars was created in 1976.

The 37th edition of the awards was held at Paris’ Chatelet Theater.

By comparison, five African-American actors and one actress have picked up an Academy Award, starting with Sidney Poitier in 1963. Twenty-five have been nominated including Viola Davis, running for best actress Sunday for “The Help.”

Based on a true story, “Intouchables” stars Francois Cluzet as a wealthy quadriplegic whose life is turned upside down when he hires a young black man, played by Sy, just out of prison to take care of him.

One of the most successful films in French history with 19 million viewers, the surprise hit made a star of Sy, who takes his place as the most prominent black actor in a country where nearly all the leading film thespians are white.

Sy – who comes from the gritty Paris surburb of Trappes and made a name as a comic actor on television – said prior to the ceremony that skin color was not a central issue for him.

“I don’t want to be the black guy of the moment,” he told “L’Express” magazine. He has also admitted having to turn down roles that would have typecast him as a thug or petty criminal.

The Weinstein company has bought an option for the film’s U.S. remake rights – but it received an extremely frosty reception from several U.S. reviewers including the trade magazine “Variety,” which slammed it as racist.

“Driss is treated as nothing but a performing monkey,” wrote the magazine in a vitriolic review, “ ... entertaining the master while embodying all the usual stereotypes about class and race.”

The other big winner Friday was “The Artist,” which netted Cesars for best film, best director (Michel Hazanavicius), best actress (Berenice Bejo), best score (Ludovic Bource), best set design and best cinematography. Film lead Jean Dujardin, acclaimed for his role as a fading silent film star, left the Cesars empty handed.

French cinema has had a bumper year both artistically and commercially, with a whopping 215.6 million cinema tickets sold last year in the country of 65 million. Winners of Cesar awards receive Oscar-like trophies sculpted by Cesar Baldaccini, the artist they are named after.

“A Separation,” Iranian writer-director Asghar Farhadi’s highly acclaimed drama, was awarded the Cesar for best foreign film.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on February 27, 2012, on page 16.
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