In Films by James Hay - Cinema Editor

A modern day Romeo and Juliet with a dark twist, Black is as hard as it is stylish.

Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio) and Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi) are from the wrong sides of the Belgian tracks, instead of the houses Montague and Capulet we have the Brussels street gangs of Black Bronx and 1080, and so they obviously have to fall for one another.

Co-directors Bilall Fallah and Adil El Arbi create a kaleidoscope of several genres here, smoothly blending them together. We have the tough street gang movie, the teen coming-of-age film and even flares of musical theatricality at times. This is work clearly made by film fans, proudly wearing their cinematic influences on their sleeves. And that doesn’t detract from what they’ve created in Black.

None of it feels original, the Romeo and Juliet love story, the tough-to-watch horrific rape scene, the balletic final confrontation, the moody shallow focus over-the-shoulder indie style cinematography, but that doesn’t seem to matter. Being original isn’t essential, indeed there’s an argument to say it’s increasingly impossible, but being good is. And this is good. Good acting (Martha Canga Antonio largely stealing the show with her transition arc), good writing and good direction. So, all in all, it’s pretty good.

In turns you feel like you’re enjoying a scene from West Side Story, then Romeo and Juliet, next La Haine, fused with aspirations of something a touch grander than merely a pic’n’mix of the filmmakers favourites. Whether it ever gets there is open for discussion.

A few sticking points. The worst being that tough rape scene. There’s nothing watchable about rape but it does happen in this world and so it shouldn’t be shied away from. However, if it’s to be included then it has to serve a purpose. Here, its necessity seems unclear. Yes, it shows that the gang are properly evil and bad to the bone but we already knew that so the protracted showing of this particular evil runs unfortunately too close to being gratuitous for it to serve its purpose.

Other issue are the film’s title and its conclusion. Apart from a few throwaway lines of dialogue hinting at race tension and the basic fact that one of the rival gangs is comprised of black men and women, it’s unclear as to what exactly the title refers. If it’s supposed to be symbolic and subversive then it fails. As for the conclusion: weak, predictable and cop-out are words that spring to mind. A real shame actually as it had built to its natural crescendo only to fizzle out somewhat, like the one dud firework at the end of a fairly decent display. 

So, overall, Black punches well above its weight. Whilst being unoriginal, both in content and style, in almost every way it still manages to be a good film (Hollywood take note). A worthy achievement but marginally let down by one incongruous scene, a weak ending and a general lack of thematic clarity.

If we were to write Fallah and El Arbi’s school reports for this term, they would read, ‘good but could do better’.