Directed by Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah
Starring Martha Canga Antonio, Aboubakr Bensaihi, Jeremie Zagba, Sanaa Bourassa
Released on 19th August 2016
From the word go, directors Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah aren’t shy in acknowledging the source material for their searing urban drama, Black. It’s another riff on the Romeo And Juliet theme and it’s also based on Dirk Bracke’s YA novels, Black and Back. But this is a film that also knows its cinema history and it shows in one, pivotal scene, when a lone girl is attacked by members of a rival gang. The build-up is on screen, but not the assault: instead, what we’re shown is the other girl who lured her into the trap, locked in a cupboard, screaming and hammering on the door to get out.
It’s a re-run of the murder of Nancy in David Lean’s Oliver Twist from 1948. That time, the camera concentrated on the dog scratching frantically at the door to get out of the room as the woman was being beaten to death. Good film making never goes out of date.
Despite the film’s YA background don’t, whatever you do, go expecting a YA film. For a start, the 18 certificate gives the game away, that this is a decidedly 21st century angle on Shakespeare’s romance, one that will resonate wherever you are, regardless of its setting or yours. The two lovers are Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio), a teenage black girl and Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi), who is Moroccan. Both belong to gangs, who are sworn enemies – Mavela is in Black Bronx, Marwan 1080. But when the two meet in a police station, their attraction is instant and obvious, even though they both know it’s forbidden. Their attempts at keeping their relationship secret are soon exposed, with Mavela suffering the consequences. And that makes her realise that she needs to get out of the gang for good.
The film won the Discovery award at last year’s Toronto Film Festival and its directors are now lined up to direct Beverly Hills Cop 4, the theory being that they will breathe some fresh life into the franchise. Whether the uncompromising style they demonstrate here will be allowed by Hollywood is open to question. They seriously don’t hold back in their portrait of the Brussels teenage underworld that’s unsettling, menacing and utterly compelling.
But they do demonstrate a discipline as well, allowing the audience to use their imagination, even if what they see in their mind’s eye is the worst. It’s coupled with some intelligent and effective narrative techniques. After one of the bigger bust-ups, the police arrest the protagonists, but come up against a brick wall. Every single one of them has a cover story – and we’re given just one sentence each. It’s all we need to know: we can see for ourselves that the police are getting nowhere and the story keeps its foot on the throttle. And they also have a nice knack for building menace, isolating the victim in the centre of the screen with their attackers emerging one by one from the shadows until they’re close enough for their prey to sense their presence. Only by then, it’s too late.
Adil El Arbi and Billal Fallah threw themselves into extensive research for the film – hours of police ridealongs in Brussels and first-hand experience of real young people forced into joining the city’s street gangs. Apparently, there’s nearly 40 of them. And the result is intense and pulsating, with some great performances. The young actors were all streetcast from local neighbourhoods, with both Martha Canga Antonio and Aboubakr Bensaihi making their on-screen debuts. She’s especially good, with huge, expressive eyes and a petite, delicate stature that belies her strength of character and will to survive.
Black is raw, electrifying, a streetwise mix of the contemporary with the classic – and one overriding message. That hate only ever leads to more hate.
Black is released in cinemas and on demand on Friday, 19 August and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 18 August.