Directors: Adil El Arbi, Bilall Fallah
Cast: Martha Canga Antonio, Aboubakr Bensaihi
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Adapted from a pair of popular YA novels (Back and Black) by Dirk Bracke, this stylishly directed Belgian drama from co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah uses the streets of Brussels as the backdrop for a powerful, modern-day Romeo & Juliet story. The award-winning film has already proven quite the calling card as far as Hollywood is concerned, leading to the directors being personally selected to direct Beverly Hills Cop 4, although one hopes that their obvious talents will be quickly put to more original use once Eddie Murphy is done with them.
Black opens with Moroccan teenager Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi) performing a smash-and-grab in broad daylight and escaping with a lady’s purse, after a frantic foot chase. A member of street gang The 1080s (led by his older brother), Marwan later winds up in the police station, where he meets and immediately falls for 15 year old Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio), herself a newly indoctrinated member of rival African gang The Black Bronx.
Marwan and Mavela begin a tentative, secret relationship, wary of what might happen if their affair was discovered by either of their respective gangs. However, when Mavela is forced to be complicit in a horrific act against Marwan’s brother’s girlfriend, it sets in motion a chain of events that will have devastating consequences.
The production comes with a high level of authenticity – not only did the directors cast all the young actors from the streets, but they shot the film in the real-life suburbs of Molenbeek and Matonge (the north-African Arab and sub-Saharan African districts of Brussels), as well as putting in countless hours of research (including police ridealongs) into the prevalence of street gang culture and its impact on young people (Brussels alone has nearly 40 street gangs).
Martha Canga Antonio and Aboubakr Bensaihi are both sensational as the star-crossed lovers, generating palpable chemistry (the courtship sequences are charming, all smiles and eye-contact) and revealing heart-breaking layers of innocence and vulnerability beneath their gang-related posturing. Of the two, Antonio’s character has a much darker trajectory and she handles the shift brilliantly, undergoing a transformation that is deeply upsetting to watch.
The direction pulses with energy throughout, with El Arbi and Fallah proving as adept at a tender love scene as they are at moments of sudden, shocking violence. Similarly, their depiction of the reality of gang culture (including rape, criminality, clashes with police and savage beatings) is all too convincing, especially set against a background of poverty, discrimination and cultural displacement.
In addition to the obvious thematic influence of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet, Black owes an acknowledged debt to Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 drama, La Haine, which dealt with the violence affecting a multi-racial trio of friends in an impoverished Paris housing project, as well as Fernando Meirelles’ City of God, both in style and content. This is heightened by the use of a terrific soundtrack that incorporates both Belgian hip-hop and north African tracks, plus a terrific, home-grown cover of Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black that is put to exceptional use in the film, achieving a powerful emotional impact. Brilliantly made, superbly acted and powerfully moving, Shakespeare would be proud.