Here we go again. The writing-directing team of Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah had made only one small movie in their native Belgium when they took Black to the Toronto Film Festival last year… and it was on the supposed strengths of the film that Eddie Murphy and Jerry Bruckheimer handed them the keys to the upcoming big-budget action comedy Beverly Hills Cop 4. (Indie male filmmakers with no track records getting scooped up by Hollywood for major projects while successful female filmmakers can’t get work is an ongoing problem.) So, what’s special about Black? Absolutely nothing: it’s a facile riff on Romeo & Juliet set amongst rival gangs in Brussels. It has nothing to say that we haven’t heard before, and — much worse — though it thinks it’s offering primarily a teenage girl’s perspective on its events, it fails at that in a spectacularly disgusting way.
When 15-year-old Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio), of the gang Black Bronx, and Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi), of the Moroccan gang 1080s (named after their postal code), fall in love, it causes precisely the sort of trouble you’d expect. There’s not a moment here that comes with the tiniest hint of surprise or that transcends the many clichés that have sprung up around gang stories or around forbidden romances. And while I wasn’t expecting another Girlhood — the best movie I’ve ever seen about teenaged girls and gangs, not that there are many to choose from — I certainly didn’t imagine that a movie that wants to be sympathetic to its female protagonist would shoot a rape scene from the perspective of her rapists, or that it would be more concerned with men’s reactions to “their” women being raped than with the women’s own reactions. (Yes, there is more than one rape scene here. That’s part of what makes it “gritty.”) This is based on two Flemish YA novels, which do not appear to have been translated into English, by Dirk Bracke, who is an old white man. Now, it’s not impossible that an old white man could convincingly tell a story from the POV of a black teenage girl, but from the evidence here, I’m guessing that he has not done that. At least El Arbi and Fallah are ethnically Moroccan… which is probably why their greatest sympathies seem to be for the Moroccan teens.
Black wants to be Shakespearean, but the only thing tragic here is how banal it is.