Belgian film Black brings to mind classics such as Romeo and Juliet as well as West Side Story, of course its all given a modern day twist and introduces Congolese, Moroccan and Belgian flavours. This heart-breaking story is an adaptation of a series of books by Flemish young-adult author Dirk Bracke, known for presenting stark subjects such as sex, immigration and violence to teenage fiction. Black is a bold and commendable effort by newbie Belgian directors Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah but unfortunately its not all rosy as film proves problematic at various points; mainly due its countless clichés, the lack of depth of its characters and the weak portrayal of gang life. The film is set in the Brussel’s district of Molenbeek; an area which the media have recently described it as a ‘breeding ground of terrorism’ and in this city quarter is where our dark and fatal love story of two young teenagers Mavela and Marwan comes to life; amidst a background of gang violence, guns, drugs, minimal future prospects and unfulfilled dreams.
Mavela, played by Martha Canga Antonio, ignorant in her youth and unaware of the consequences, with little encouragement from her cousin joins a local Congolese gang called the Black Bronx. The Black Bronx is a group of young thugs who make money through drug dealing and stealing, partake in heavy partying and try to cause havoc and intimation in the streets of Molenbeek. Cango Antonio shows great promise, her Mavela is thoroughly convincing, she occupies the role perfectly; we completely believe in her tragedy and its truly a surprise to hear that this is her first acting job, ever. At the same time of her Black Bronx initiation, she meets Marwan, played by Abobakr Bensaihi; a rather small Moroccan boy also part of his own gang with his brother, called the 1080s. Bensaihi is unconvincing as gang leader; its more for his height, stature, and his good nature; perhaps compared to his buffed up, bullish brother. A love relationship between Marwan and Mavela blossoms to the reluctance of their respective gangs, for reasons which El Arbi and Fallah don’t really bother to explain, and the plot escalates to series of one tragic event after the next.
The portrayal of these gangs could be characterized as loose, incredibly loose. We see scenes where the Black Bronx, inflict great suffering on each other or on Molenbeek locals and it all appears fake and unconvincing. Guessing by what we see, the number of members in the gang doesn’t even reaching ten, all of them likely to be under the age of twenty; it is hard to believe that this lot can cause much damage. The Black Bronx gang leader, Notorious, who is depicted as this loathsome, aggressive, king pin able to ingrain great fear in his subjects, is simply unbelievable. An out-of-the-blue gruesome gang rape scene of Marvela by all the males members of Black Bronx, after the revelation of her relationship with Marwan is uncovered, is shocking to viewers and provides a sense of realness which the film didn’t previously have. Post her rape Marvela, is too scared to leave and she is having to deal and interact with her perpetrators, pretending that its all ok. It is in these scenes, even though disturbing, is where the film seems to venture into more interesting and well thought out territories.
We can see comparisons with films such as Luc Bison’s Leon, in the way there is certain tender, heart warming story at the core of surrounding mayhem and extreme violence. However Black treads on very familiar ground which is predictable and at points cheesy. The typical slow motion shoot out scenes or the whole gangster warehouse drug den with rap music blaring out of a boom box; we’ve seen it all before. There is clearly potential in El Arbi and Fallah but we only see minute tinges of it in this film and consequently the film simply doesn’t deliver. Elements such as racism or perhaps terrorism would have provided interesting strands to expand on, but instead they opted for mediocre action sequences. It all feels rather contrived; almost like Black is their show reel to Hollywood; like a showcase of what they are capable of; that action movie with the big budget where their big ideas can actually come to fru