Isaach De Bankolé: A Flower of the Tribe

"Isaach" - ©Doug Stern; permission granted.

The Village, in New York City; a pregnant moon watching over a lone soprano saxophonist conversing with the night, his sound wonderfully ethereal, evoking Don Cherry playing the bamboo flute. A nearby coffee shop; black coffee with a bit of brown sugar and ground nutmeg for me, double Espresso for him. “Two, separate, please,” he says to the waitress. She smiles timidly, betraying her incomprehension. “Two separate espressos. One in each cup,” he pauses. “Not a double espresso in a cup.” Still timid her smile, “Got it,” she says.

At a canopied table we sit, black coffee and double Espresso steaming, to have a chat about his life, his work, the prolific international actor: Isaach De Bankolé.

Isaach De Bankolé is regarded as

“[…] one of the most unaffected actors in the world, whose groundedness and grace is evident in […] Claire Denis’s cockfighting study No Fear No Die, the satire Bàttu, and two films where he stoically incarnates a framed immigrant, The Keeper and Otomo.” (Edward Crouse, Village Voice, New York, November 22, 2001).

And of whom the groundbreaking American filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, in an interview with Isaach, done for and published in Time Out New York, # 319, November 8-15, 2001, says:

“Isaach de Bankolé is one of my favorite actors […]. As an actor Isaach takes his work very seriously, fully transforming himself for each character he embodies. For me, his strongest gift is his ability to find a true emotional center for each role. No matter how outwardly guarded or unreadable that character may be, Isaach somehow allows that emotional core to leak through his amazing features in the most skillful, subtle and honest way, and at the most appropriate moments with absolutely no apparent calculation.”

Isaach was born in Treichville, Abidjan, in the Ivory Coast (The Republic of Côte d'Ivoire). His Yorùbá-born parents emigrated to Abidjan from Àjàsé (Porto Novo), once a province of Yorùbá kingdom, in Dahomey, today’s Republic of Benin (Benin Republic). His Yorùbá-born paternal grandfather emigrated from the Yorùbá heartland of Ilé Ifè to the Yorùbá city of Òyó and eventually to Àjàsé, where his father was born.

Isaach’s father was a successful drugstore merchant. He had three wives and seventeen children. It was a close knit family, bonded by Love, and godly, making Isaach passionate about life, drunk on pure love, theistic and ethical.

Isaach began his formal education in Treichville. His desire since his youngster days was not to become a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer as his parents had wanted. He desired to grow wings, ascend the sky: he loved planes and wanted to be a pilot. He loved and took Mathematics and the Sciences seriously and excelled in both. As a youngster, as were multitude of his peers all over Africa, he liked watching commercial Indian films and Chinese Kung Fu films.

Isaach’s education in Abidjan lasted until the last year of his secondary school. It was then he immigrated to Paris, France. He was eighteen years old.

In Paris, he completed high school and proceeded to the University De Paris 7, majoring in Mathematics, simultaneously studying piloting at Academy Aeronautique Toussus-le-Noble, outside of Paris.

He graduated with a Masters of Science degree in Mathematic. By then he had qualified as a private pilot and earned his license.

“So how did you end up an actor?” I ask him, sitting my cup of coffee back down on the table between us.

“Actually, it was by chance.” He smiles, brightening the night with his sunny smile, his burnished ivory of a teeth gleaming.

Chance is Janus faced in meaning. We normally think of it as happenstance, but in its essence it connotes fate.

This is how chance maneuvered Isaach’s life and changed it forever.

Isaach was one day walking along a street in the artsy Parisian neighborhood Saint Germain-des-Pres and was suddenly stopped by a man who introduced himself as Gérard Vergez, a filmmaker. He told Isaach he was planning on making a film and would like him to star in it. Isaach was flattered, but decline saying he was not an actor. Gérard persisted and eventually got Isaach to follow him to his nearby apartment. There he gave Isaach a novel, Vendredi Ou Les Limbes du Pacifique, by Michel Tournier, from which the film was to be adapted. They agreed to talk when Isaach finished reading the novel.

Isaach liked the novel and was eager to act in the film, but, mindful of his background, reminded Gérard he was not an actor. Gérard told him not to worry about it.

Though Gérard was eager to make an actor of Isaach, the producers of the film were unwilling to take a chance on a novice actor. Thus Isaach lost the opportunity, which was “cool” with him; however, he had already fallen in love with acting.

Isaach’s friendship with Gérard survived and when Gérard finished shooting the film, Friday and the Wildlife (Vendredi Ou La du vi-vie Sauvage) (1981), starring Michael York, he needed it translated to French and asked Isaach to do it. Isaach spent two days in the studio overdubbing the film, “my first professional job.” He smiles, sips his Espresso, the background screeching of an Emergency Medical Service van drowning out the gentle sound of the saxophonist.

“So how did that led to an acting career?”

“Gérard saw how happy and excited I was, and asked if I was interested in ‘this business’. I said yeah. And he gave me five names of Drama schools. I choose one: Les Cours Simon.”

Isaach desired to study drama, but he had no money to pay for the course. His major source of finance at the time being his family, he had nowhere else to turn. His older brothers were furious he wanted to change his career to something frivolous, lacking security: acting! But his mother was compassionate about her son’s itching desire, ached in her heart for him and rose up to the challenge of supporting him.

His mother sending him from time to time whatever money she could afford, and working as a waiter, among other jobs, was how Isaach attended Les Cours Simon, graduating with a Degree in Acting.

With his graduation from Simon the man who wanted to become a pilot was now auditioning. He won the part to play Lemmy in the film, Black Mic Mac (1986), which made him a star in France. And for which in 1987 he was awarded the César – the French Oscar – for the Most Promising – Best New – Actor. He was the only “black” actor ever to win a César.

Chocolat (1988) further confirmed Isaach’s talent, and the film’s success and critical acclaim made him an art-house star, and introduced him to film audiences all over the world. How did Chocolat come about for him? Claire Denis and Wim Wenders, the film’s director and co producer respectively, had seen and were impressed with his stage performance in the play, Dans la Solitude des Champs de Coton (In the Solitude of the Cotton Field).

More critically acclaimed films followed Chocolat, including No Fear No Die (S’en Fout la Mort) (1990), Casa de Lava (1994) . . . .

After twenty two years living in Paris, Isaach relocated to New York City in 1997 seeking new frontiers and challenges. It was not his first time in New York: he had been visiting the City as early as the mid seventies “to hang out in the Village”.

His move to New York and his embrace of the American movie industry had its challenges and frustrations, but by 1999 he was working on two films simultaneously: Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) and Otomo (1999), in New Jersey, USA and in Stuttgart, Germany respectively.

In November of 2000, the African Diaspora Film Festival featured a retrospective on Isaach’s work. One of the films screened was the award winning Otomo, in German with English subtitle. It is via Otomo we realize Isaach speaks German. He is also fluent in Yorùbá, Bambara, English, French and, somewhat, Italian. The film is based on the true story of Otomo, an unemployed, asylum seeking African (Cameroonian) in Stuttgart wrongly accused of having an expired train ticket and ordered out of the train. It is an ordinary event which became extraordinary and ended tragically later that day.

“Otomo is a powerful work, one we need more than ever these days,” Elvis Mitchell thoughtfully wrote in his New York Times review of the film. I say thoughtfully because Otomo is indeed a poignant film, Isaach’s performance haunting, visceral.

A woman in the audience at the retrospective’s opening night screening of Otomo at the Anthology Film Archive in New York City, who was captivated by Isaach’s performance, sigh in relief when Otomo (Isaach), who had just been shot dead on the screen in the unsettling last scene of the film, walked onto the stage for a Question and Answer session with the film’s director, Frieder Schlaich. The woman, having been charmed by the magic of cinema, commented openly she was happy to see Isaach alive and thanked him for his “wonderful performance”.

And later during the Q & A, someone in the audience commented on Isaach’s “incredible performance” and inquired of Frieder how he came to cast Isaach for the role. Frieder said when he finished the script and had gotten the funds to do the film he knew there was only one person to play Otomo. So he flew to New York to meet with Isaach to discuss the role.

Frieder’s confidence in Isaach portraying Otomo is not simply because Isaach, like Otomo, originates from West Africa, speaks German, and is familiar with Europe and its cultures, having lived in France for over two decades and travels widely in Europe. Other actors fit this profile and Frieder could have cast any of them for the role. Rather, Frieder’s confidence in Isaach as Otomo reveals he had comprehended this: Isaach is the actor who best portrays the essence, brilliance, anguish, tumultuous psychological interior and cultural amphibiousness of the post slavery, post colonial African (yes, a lofty assertion, but true); who best portrays his tears and laughter, his rage, his weakness and strength, his pain and pleasure, his joy and sorrow, his hope; who best portrays his inherent tenacity, regality, theism, stoicism, industriousness, inventiveness, even cunning. Frieder had comprehended – as alluded to by Jim Jarmusch – Isaach is one of the world’s great actors poignantly portraying the human condition.

One of the many characters Isaach played, “fully transforming himself”, whose “true emotional center” he found, is Otomo. So consummate is Isaach’s portrayal of Otomo you forget you are watching a movie not a documentary. Portraying Otomo interested Isaach, he says, because he knows well the plight of African immigrants in Europe and was delighted to tell their story.

As I sit listening to Isaach, intermittently sipping coffee, I keep thinking, this guy really personifies Africa’s tears and laughter, the human condition; he really is a flower of the Tribe, viscerally portraying the Tribe, telling its story, the human story; thinking about the many films in which he has brilliantly done this.

In Chocolat, Isaach portrays Protee, a “regal and handsome” Cameroonian houseboy dutifully serving a French officer, his beautiful French wife and their daughter in colonial Africa – in the Republic of Cameroon. Protee’s rejection of his master’s wife when she caresses his leg in sexual submission to him leads to his being banished by his master, at the wife’s request, from working in the interior of the house. The agony Protee feels at his servitude of an existence recalls that of the slave, working in his master’s home, tending to his and his family’s needs, whims and fancies, and paying dearly (“strange fruit”) for any real or imagined sexual interest or involvement with his master’s wife or daughter.

In The Keeper (1995), he plays Jean Baptiste, a Haitian immigrant and baker in New York City, wrongly accused of rape. Portraying Baptiste interested him, he says, because of his own childhood experience as an “Anago”, a derogatory term used to refer to Yorùbá immigrants in Abidjan. So he knows the pain of discrimination and oppression.

In Night on Earth (1991), he is a Paris Cab Driver, an immigrant from the Ivory Coast, working from 8PM to 8AM, and having, on this particular day, a “fucked up ” day. A bandage on his forehead hides a cut above his right eye. (Was he recently mugged? An injury from a recent sleep deprived accident?) His passengers are two obnoxious, albeit humorous, African diplomats. They opine he drives like a lizard; ask him which jungle he is from: the same as theirs? They make fun of his “terrifying” looks. Insulted, terribly annoyed, he stops, tells them to get out of his taxi. They do, reluctantly: it is past four o’clock in the morning, in the middle of nowhere!

In Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Isaach is Raymond, a humorous Haitian immigrant in New York City, eking out a living as an ice cream vendor, and carrying a gun to protect himself. “Am I not in America now?” he tells his friend, Ghost Dog (Forest Whitaker), when the latter admonishes him for carrying a gun.

“So how do you come about your roles?”

He smiles, shrugs. “I don’t know … they just come … people call me . . .”

Already famous in Europe, the circle of Isaach’s American audience is now widening, having appeared or starred in American films and Television drama, the most popular and memorable: The Limits of Control, Coffee and Cigarettes, Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, Night on Earth, A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries, The Skeleton Key, The Guitar, Heart of Darkness – (TV), with Tim Roth, John Malkovich and Iman, The Sopranos, where in the show’s 2001 season he plays Father Obosi, The Unit, as General Togar in the show’s 2006 Force Majeure episode, and in 2009 as Prime Minister Ule Matobo in the ground breaking series: 24.

In the 2000 profile the hip New York City based Trace Magazine did on Isaach, the interviewer remarks some foreign actors like Juliette Binoche (The English Patient) and Roberto Benigni (Life Is Beautiful) “have made it in America”, and asks Isaach if he thinks his being a French speaking actor or foreign actor speaking a different language creates a challenge for him in America or the Hollywood system? Isaach’s response is worth quoting in its entirety:

“It would have been if I was 100% French. I mean I lived in France for 22 years, but I don’t think, uh-the challenge is myself. I mean, I’m not racing against anyone and I don’t want to look like anyone else either. You know what I am saying? I was born in the Ivory Coast, but my parents are Yorùbá so at home I was in a double environment with Yorùbá and English and French. (Laughing) It’s a gift. It’s a gift for me to have been born Yorùbá because even before I was born my parents were travelers but they never cut [ties]. They were always carrying the experience. I mean, that’s the way of the Yorùbá. They move, but they keep still connected with the language, with the rituals, with the visits back home. They moved to Ivory Coast, but we never actually left. [Coming] here [is] a good thing for [a foreign] actor […]. They’re even getting an Oscar. It’s good. It’s opening up. […] But what I brought to this place is something else, different from what Benigni will bring to this place or something different from what Juliette Binoche would bring because Juliette Binoche would bring something from France and maybe some other parts of Europe, but I bring something not only from France but also from Africa. That’s where my difference is.”

That is where Isaach’s difference is indeed, with which he is beginning to etch an indelible mark on the landscape of American cinema.

Traveling Miles: Cassandra Wilson (2000) is Isaach’s directorial debut. A commendable documentary, featuring great cinematography and music – ah, the music; Traveling Miles evokes Bruce Weber’s Let’s Get Lost the sublime documentary on the great jazz trumpeter, Chet Baker. Isaach has now completed the screenplay for his first directorial film, set in New York City, a story both enlightening and heartrending, and brilliantly plotted, with the potential for both critical and commercial success.

Besides the previously mentioned film, The Limits of Control (USA, 2009), the American Television series, The Sopranos, The Unit and 24, Isaach’s most recent work includes the films, I Am Slave (UK, 2010), White Material (France, 2009) Diving Bell and the Butterfly (France-USA, 2007), Casino Royale (UK, 2006), Miami Vice (USA, 2006) and Manderlay (Denmark-USA, 2005).

As Isaach said in the Trace interview, “It’s good. It’s opening up.”

Gone now, the saxophonist; the nearby trees tottering; the moon serene, unruffled by the clouds now swirling about it; I gulp the rest of my now cold coffee, switch off my Micro Cassette recorder.

Omo ìyá, o sé, o” (Mother’s child, thank you), I say to Isaach in Yorùbá, concluding our conversation, thanking him for his time and work.

“Olórun ló sé” (It is God we thank), he responds.

© 2001 Ségun Ògúntólá

© 2006 Ségun Ògúntólá