Published Sep 11, 2015Like 2014's Image, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah's Black, a cleverly conceived adaptation of Shakespeare's Romeo & Juliet, dives deep into the heart of the street gang epidemic in Brussels. Just as its predecessor aimed to humanize a Moroccan street thug by digging beneath his vainglorious persona, the love story at this realist thriller's core shows the conflict and fragility beneath the false bravado and seeming moral absolutes of judicial and social adherence. El Arbi and Fallah are digging away at the situation in an effort to find some truth beyond the cyclic nature of blame and retaliation.
Their methodology for doing so in Black is simple but effective. Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio), a teenage girl going through the motions of initiation with the local Black Bronx gang, is arrested for shoplifting champagne. This is where she meets Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi), a member of the Moroccan 1080 gang, who has similarly been arrested for shoplifting. He aggressively pursues Mavela, despite her pragmatic reluctance — they're in rival gangs of misogynists — but eventually wins her over.
Much like the source inspiration, the divide between these gangs is exacerbated by a conflict between those close to our central lovers. Marwan's brother makes unwanted sexual advances towards the girlfriend of the ersatz leader of the Black Bronx, leading to a few broken bones and bloody noses, starting a feud of increasingly high-stakes vengeance.
El Arbi and Fallah use non-professional actors to portray the gang members; the goal was to find some authenticity in the lifestyle by hiring kids actually living it. And while this tactic often falters, having an awkward or exaggerated dynamic, it works to great effect here, as the hyperbolized masculinity ultimately aids in exaggerating the affectation of those involved in territory wars. As the many boys involved — particularly in the Black Bronx — sneer and try to outdo each other with bullshit tough guy mantras (mostly involving the proud subjugation of women), there's a real sense of misguided adolescent angst. These are ultimately a bunch of marginalized kids finding validation through intimidation tactics, getting the respect that a society quick to disregard and dismiss them won't readily provide through violence.
While the gritty, but not unnecessarily exploitative, depiction of gang life and the ultimate build-up towards tragedy is quite effective, there are some issues with this socio-political work. Often, the response to unwanted territorial pissings involves gang rape. Initially, when the Black Bronx rapes a Moroccan gang member, it's handled as tastefully as possible off-screen, working as an instigator of conflict and also building some guilt in Mavela, who reluctantly played a part. Later though, when the rape card is played again, it's handled quite explicitly, lingering on the female form without showing as much as a male torso or ass. We see their faces sneering and understand that the situation is supposed to be horrific, but the fact that Mavela's bare breasts are really the only consistent visual indicator is problematic. This is exacerbated by the cinematography used in romantic sexual encounters throughout the film, which have a similar focus on breasts, despite the abundance of other visual possibilities in such a situation.
The other issue with Black is its eventual climactic build-up. While the plot is handled effectively and logically, and the varying conflicts amidst gang members are quite distressing and tense, there's a bit of a void where the assumed love is supposed to be. El Arbi and Fallah are careful to give Mavela a back-story, highlighting the conflict between the maternal support system she has and the social neglect that allowed her to embrace negative validation, and they're similarly careful not to point fingers specifically at a culture that categorizes visible minorities, noting how the kids are quick to blame the police for targeting them despite setting cop cars on fire, shoplifting incessantly and endangering the lives of the public by fighting in crowded locales, but why Mavela and Marwan have a connection is sort of vague. We get that both of them feel like passengers in the gang world, but they don't specifically bond over this, nor do they have any intimate discussions that allow us to feel their chemistry. We're mostly witness to their sexual shenanigans, which does little to help us invest in the eventual idea that they're "in love."
Still, considering the tapestry that Black tries to weave and the fact that these are non-professional actors (Martha Canga Antonio particularly demonstrates quite a bit of range), it's understandable that some of the more manufactured elements would falter somewhat. The sense of pacing and overall tone is quite consistent, generating a visceral cinematic experience overall and the intent — showing how susceptible at risk kids are of being attracted to such a dangerous life — is quite clear. Considering the overriding political spectrum of race relations in the Western world as of late, Black is a very challenging and timely work that adds some interesting dialogue to the conversation.