Dir. Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah
Starring: Martha Canga Antonio, Aboubakr Bensaihi
Review By Greg Klymkiw
This violent, exuberantly-directed contemporary Belgian take on "Romeo and Juliet" falls into the yeah-it's-well-made-but-it's-another-been-there-done-that crime picture about ethnic youth in a big city that views them with racist disdain. However, the well-worn subject matter of Black places a great deal of emphasis and detail upon the seldom-explored and insidious rape culture within gang structures. Though the gang-rape sequences (yes, there are more than one) are not shot with any prurience, they're clearly disturbing and relatively graphic.
The story involves young lovers on opposite sides of the gang equation. Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio) "belongs" to the Brussels Black Bronx and Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi) is a member of a Moroccan gang. They meet in a police station during a gang round-up and experience that immediate spark of romance. After a bit of courtship, their attraction is finally requited, but if their secret love is ever revealed, it's going to be Hell-to-pay time for both of them. Betwixt the romantic shenanigans, the film delivers the goods on plenty of gang-against-gang violence (including a superbly directed sequence on a subway car and eventually spilling out into the station) and sequences involving the earnest, but ineffective attempts of the Brussels police to keep order amongst the kiddies.
And then, there are those gang-rapes. Rape is used as a weapon against the women of rival gangs and also used as both punishment and ownership over women in their own gangs. The lasciviousness with which the men ogle the women - constantly - is extremely creepy and disturbing. Within the context of criminal gangs, I have no quarrel with any of this being represented in a film about this milieu, BUT . . .
What seems somewhat disingenuous, or at the least lop-sided, is that the film pays especially close and graphic visual attention to the rape culture with the Brussels Black Bronx gang. Passing mention is made of this brutal culture of misogyny in terms of the Moroccans (one of them states they'll commit a gang-rape in retaliation), but it's a fleeting line of dialogue and in cinema, SEEING is everything. While there is truth to the existence of rape culture in all criminal gangs, it feels ethnocentric at best and at worst, borderline racist to place so many visual aspects of it amongst the Black gang.
The fact that the filmmakers are of Moroccan descent might well be enough for some critics and audiences to take them to task, but using a filmmaker's ethnicity to bolster such an argument would be just as ethnocentric and/or outright racist. (This kind of ethno-critical blame is becoming far too common these days and I've been guilty of it myself. God knows I've crapped on Russians for misrepresenting Ukrainian culture in the cinema. Black, however, is a far more "visible" case of this and I'll bet anything we'll see a few notices referring to the aforementioned suggestion that Moroccan filmmakers downplay their "own" culpability in such egregious actions as portrayed in the film. It's not right, but it will happen.)
So yes, while a part of me wishes to dismiss the film outright because of the one-sided view of rape culture within the Black gang, the fact remains that the film IS directed with style, skill and artistry. As well, the performances, most notably from Martha Canga Antonio and Aboubakr Bensaihi (both of whom have "star" written all over them) are so first-rate, it would be a shame to dissuade cineastes from experiencing the work.
The film is a political minefield. This is not a bad thing, but with Black, something just doesn't feel quite right about it and as such, detracts somewhat from its artistic merit.
THE FILM CORNER RATING: *** 3 Stars
Black receives its World Premiere in the TIFF Discovery series during TIFF 2015. For dates, times and tix, visit the TIFF website HERE.