Wes Anderson’s “The French Dispatch” and the Legacy of Afro-Asia

January 26, 2022   •   By Mieko Anders

BEFORE HIS INVOLVEMENT in revolutionary party politics in Vietnam, Nguyen Ai Quoc (later known as Ho Chi Minh) worked as a chef. We know relatively little about the details of Nguyen Ai Quoc’s life during this period, which he spent in Europe and the United States, working as a cook in Boston, London, and aboard a French steam ship. This gap in the otherwise sprawling archive of his life is mysterious, and ripe for speculation — what was it like for this colonial subject to work as a cook in the heart of an empire? While he worked to provide sustenance for others, what sustained him? This is the premise of Monique Truong’s 2003 The Book of Salt, a work of historical fiction set in interwar Paris and narrated from the perspective of Binh, a Vietnamese immigrant who works as the private chef of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. In the novel, Binh has a brief love affair with a fictionalized version of Nguyen Ai Quoc, who asks him a haunting question: “What keeps you here?”

The penultimate vignette in Wes Anderson’s newest film, The French Dispatch, is narrated by Roebuck Wright (Jeffrey Wright), a food writer for “the French dispatch of the Liberty, Kansas Evening Sun.” A gay, Black American expat living in the fictional French town of Ennui-sur-Blasé, Wright’s character is partly inspired by James Baldwin. The film itself “reads” like a magazine, and each vignette focuses on a piece of writing included in the magazine’s final issue, which has been assembled in the wake of the death of the founding editor. Wright’s vignette, titled “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner,” occurs under the magazine’s “Tastes and Smells” section. In his narration of the featured article, Wright tells the story of a fine dining experience that is interrupted by a criminal plot to kidnap the commissioner’s son. The dinner itself, which was supposed to be a master class in the cuisine of “police cooking,” never makes it beyond the aperitif.

If the article fails to meet readerly expectations of a typical piece of food criticism, it nevertheless manages to paint an intriguing portrait of the expert chef, the enigmatic Lieutenant Nescaffier, an Asian expat whose place of origin remains unknown. (That Nguyen Ai Quoc, according to William J. Duiker’s 1989 biography, worked as an apprentice to a chef named “Escoffier” while living in London is an interesting coincidence.) Wright begins the article by describing Nescaffier as a master of his craft whose talent nearly defies description. When the article veers away from its intended subject, Nescaffier doesn’t disappear from the narrative: instead, he emerges as the story’s hero, rescuing the police commissioner’s son from his kidnappers by whipping up a dish of radishes laced with poison, which he himself eats in order to quell any suspicion. “But Nescaffier survived,” Wright says, “thanks to the extreme fortitude — bolstered and braced season upon season by the richest, most potent plates, pans, and sauce pots — of his almost superhuman stomach.” The section ends with a tender, intimate exchange between Wright and a recovering Nescaffier, who bond over their shared identity as “foreigners.” “This city’s full of us, isn’t it?” Wright chuckles.

The exchange certainly speaks, in a general sense, to the melancholic condition of exile. Of his sacrificial act, Nescaffier says, “I’m not brave. I just wasn’t in the mood to be a disappointment to everybody,” reminding viewers that what might seem like bravery is, for the perpetual “foreigner,” simply an act of survival. Of course, it’s important to note that Wright and Nescaffier are not simply “foreigners” living in France, like the other white American expats who write for the French dispatch; as racialized characters, they are doubly removed from the dominant social order, and Wright’s outsider status is further compounded by his sexuality, for which he is imprisoned while living in Ennui.

The emergence of the category of race in this vignette points to a more specific story than one of “exile” in general: with Wright and Nescaffier as its key characters, the vignette recalls a rich but relatively little-known history of international collaboration between members of the African and Asian diaspora throughout the 20th century. Intellectuals, artists, and activists of both diasporas theorized cross-racial solutions to the global, overlapping tyrannies of colonialism, capitalism, and the racist systems that uphold them. They strove to challenge the notion that the struggles faced by one racialized group were somehow disconnected from those faced by the other, while simultaneously acknowledging the unique circumstances of each. For scholars like Fred Ho, Bill Mullen, and Tao Leigh Goffe — as well as for Vijay Prashad, Shannon Steen, Heike Raphael-Hernandez, and other scholars — the term “Afro-Asia” names this mode of political collaboration and cultural exchange, and signifies a way of thinking and living against and beyond Euro-American systems of domination. Expressions of Afro-Asian collaboration range from overtly political writing, like Mao Zedong’s statements in support of Black Americans against US domestic racism in the 1960s, to musical productions in the form of what Tamara Roberts calls “sono-racial collaboration.” Notable figures who embraced this vision include Langston Hughes, whose later poetry was influenced by his travels to Central and East Asia; W. E. B. Du Bois, for whom Asia was key to developing an understanding of “the color line” as a global phenomenon; C. L. R. James, who considered the history of radical politics in China in his writing on Marxist theory; and American activist Grace Lee Boggs, who collaborated with C. L. R. James, as well as her husband James Boggs, in her fight for civil and human rights.

In his 2003 essay “The Shadow of Shadows,” English and Comparative Literature professor Brent Hayes Edwards shows how important Nguyen Ai Quoc himself was to the intellectual genealogy of Afro-Asia. While in Paris during the interwar period, Nguyen Ai Quoc wrote the bulk of what was to become his book French Colonialism on Trial, in which he critiques manifestations of French colonialism not only in Vietnam but also in Morocco and Algeria. Acknowledging that Paris has long been a site of refuge for exiles in general, Edwards also insists on the metropolis’s historical significance for the intellectual, political, and cultural collaboration of the African and Asian diasporas in particular, specifically for figures like Nguyen Ai Quoc and the Senegalese anticolonial thinker and activist Lamine Senghor. “If diaspora is an appropriate term to describe these circuits [of migration],” Edwards writes,

it is partly because it (a Greek word, arising in Jewish exilic intellectual circles, applied to a scattering of peoples from Africa and Asia) forces us to understand a context like Paris as multiple, as heterogeneous, in a manner that makes it impossible to consider any single history of migration and exile without considering “overlapping diasporas” — simultaneous, transnational patterns that influence one another.


If the resonances between Anderson’s Ennui and mid-20th-century Paris are made clear elsewhere — in the film’s rendering of the May 1968 student protests, for example — Ennui seems to recall the political and cultural climate of midcentury Paris in this respect, too.

The undeniably understated relationship between Wright and Nescaffier in the film, however, might be best understood in terms of what Goffe, Vanita Reddy, and others have theorized as the register of “Afro-Asian intimacy.” Drawing from the work of scholars like Lisa Lowe and Ann Laura Stoler, “Afro-Asian intimacy,” in Reddy’s terms, refers to the expression of “a range of affective ties — loyalties, sympathies, desires, attachments, and affiliations — between and among racialized subjects” that elude colonial surveillance and management. These intimate encounters and engagements often don’t produce tangible evidence of their existence — like a political treatise or a jazz album — and often go undocumented in the official historical archive.

“The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” dramatizes this problem when, during its final scene, the audience learns that the intimate exchange between Nescaffier and Wright almost didn’t make it into the article at all. After reading a draft, the magazine’s editor, Arthur Howitzer Jr. (Bill Murray), complains to Wright about the fact that he only gives Nescaffier one line of dialogue. “Well, I did cut something he told me. […] I could stick it back in if you’d like,” Wright replies, after which a flashback takes us to the scene when Wright visits Nescaffier’s bedside. There, Nescaffier confesses to Wright that he is “seeking something missing; missing something left behind,” to which Wright replies, “Maybe with good luck, we’ll find what eluded us in the places we once called home.” Even on its face, the exchange is haunted by absence, drawing its emotional import from what is left unsaid. Yet the precarious position that the exchange occupies within the published narrative also mirrors the precarious position that Afro-Asian intimacies occupy within dominant historical narratives. That the scene survives the threat of erasure and makes it into the publication after all — and ultimately becomes one of the film’s most poignant moments — is a small miracle, inviting viewers to question what else might have been omitted from the narratives they’ve received, whether in the film or otherwise.

On the other hand, the film replicates the white savior trope in making Howitzer the one to rescue this moment from Wright’s self-censorship. “That’s the best part of the whole thing. That’s the reason for it to be written,” Howitzer says after reading the omitted text. “I couldn’t agree less,” replies Wright. This detail might remind us that Anderson’s whimsical, highly stylized films are rarely considered for their political content; their affected, “twee” aesthetics often lighten the impact of the serious subjects upon which they touch. Even when he takes up difficult histories of violence and persecution, as in his 2014 film, The Grand Budapest Hotel, he tends to tie them up with pastel-colored bows. To be fair, The French Dispatch is to some extent explicitly about the foreclosure of radical political possibility; The New Yorker’s Anthony Lane suggests as much in his reading of the vignette in which journalist Lucinda Krementz (Frances McDormand) painstakingly edits the political manifesto that student-activist Zeffirelli (Timothée Chalamet) writes in his bathtub. In The French Dispatch, Anderson’s cutesy aesthetics seem to contain the seeds of their own self-critique. By the same token, if “The Private Dining Room of the Police Commissioner” invites a political reading, it simultaneously forces us to be skeptical of that very reading — especially when it concerns race.

That the film is not, in fact, set in Paris is important, too. With the action displaced to Ennui, the critical relationship to the radical histories the film evokes can only ever be tenuous at best. Yet this too may be a fruitful, if subtle, reminder of the real. The institution for which Nescaffier works, and which Wright is to thank for his invitation to dinner in the first place, is, after all, the same institution responsible for Wright’s earlier imprisonment. In other words, the circumstances of Nescaffier and Wright’s meeting are hardly radical, and the film gives us no reason to believe that their relationship exists, or can exist, beyond them. Perhaps, in including this fleeting gesture toward an important but seldom acknowledged historical thread, which so often went unrecorded, The French Dispatch prompts us to wonder what we’ve lost the very opportunity to mourn.

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Mieko Anders is a PhD student in the English and Comparative Literature department Columbia University, where she studies Asian American and Asian diasporic Anglophone literature.