A row over racism has soured the release of the latest film in which Gérard Depardieu takes on one of the giants of French history.
Black actors and campaigners are upset that the white film star was cast as Alexandre Dumas, a French national hero with mixed African blood.
The blond, blue-eyed Depardieu sports curly hair and darker skin to play the creator of The Three Musketeers in L’Autre Dumas.
Dumas, the world’s most-read French author and an exuberant, high-living celebrity, was the grandson of a former Haitian slave. His father, although a Napoleonic-era general, was referred to as a Caribbean “negro”.
In his lifetime the novelist was mocked for his African features and he called himself un nègre.
The film, which opened to acclaim last week, is a fictional story about Dumas’ relations in the mid-19th century with Auguste Maquet, the shy assistant who is credited with plotting and drafting much of the Count of Monte Cristo and the Three Musketeers trilogy.
Non-white celebrities, some Dumas experts and black organisations are angry because they say that the producers missed a chance to celebrate ethnic diversity in France and remind the world of the writer’s origins. “There is a mechanism of permanent discrimination by silence,” Jacques Martial, a black actor, said.
Patrick Lozès, the president of the Council of Black Associations of France, said: “In 150 years time could the role of Barack Obama be played in a film by a white actor with a fuzzy wig? Can Martin Luther King be played by a white?”
In an online statement the council said that the casting of Depardieu was evidence of France’s failure to promote non-white stars in its cinema and media.
“Very few of our compatriots know that Alexandre Dumas was mixed race and considered to be a black in his lifetime,” it said.
The film commits a double sin in the eyes of the council because its plot discredits Dumas’ genius by depicting his white assistant as the true creator of his works. “Possibly for commercial reasons they are whitewashing Dumas in order to blacken him further,” it said.
That argument is all the more piquant in French because nègre remains the standard word in the language for ghost writer, or literary collaborator. In the film Maquet is played by Benoît Poelvoorde, a Belgian star.
The film’s makers said that Depardieu was the ideal match for the novelist, whose works have been turned into 200 films. Not only has the actor played many of Dumas’ heroes, but also his larger-than-life personality resembles that of the novelist. “The vividness of Depardieu is the perfect embodiment of Dumas,” Frank Le Wita, the producer, said. “The subject is not le nègre, but la nègritude [ghost writing] in literature.”
Safy Nebbou, the director and of mixed race himself, noted that Dumas had been one-quarter black. “It would have been an historic error to have chosen a mixed-blood actor . . . He had blue eyes like Depardieu.”
However, Mr Nebbou, 41, conceded that “France is enormously behind the Anglo-Saxons in the matter of actors from other ethnic backgrounds”.
As well as stirring controversy over its casting the film is annoying Dumas fans with its promotion of the thesis that Maquet and Dumas’ other assistants should receive more credit for the adventures that have captivated so many readers.