Chloe Walker from the Phoenix Picturehouse, Oxford previews this week’s Discover Tuesdays presentation Black.
Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio), member of Brussels gang The Black Bronx, is arrested for stealing champagne from a local supermarket. Marwan, (Aboubakr Bensaihi) of rival gang The 1080s, also finds himself in prison after breaking into a car. When the two meet, they quickly fall for each other. Because they are members of feuding gangs, Mavela and Marwan must keep their romance a secret – but it doesn’t stay hidden for long.
It’s a tale as old as time. Black is one of countless films with roots in Romeo And Juliet. Considering the amount of times this story has been told, Black should have felt as stale as Shakespeare’s old socks. And yet somehow it doesn’t; under the direction of Adil El Arbi and Bilal Fallah, this centuries-old story feels vibrant and fresh.
Black is a film powered by division. There’s the central feud, between The Black Bronx and The 1080s, and a much broader struggle between the gangs and the police. Within the gangs themselves, division exists between the men and the women: the former treat the latter like property. It’s this possessiveness that leads to a scene later in the film that’s an excruciating watch. Some have wondered whether this scene is too exploitative and shouldn’t have been included. I think it can be argued either way, but it’s the brutality of it that makes you viscerally aware of the desperate situation Mavela is facing.
The performances of the two leads, Martha Canga Antonio and Aboubakr Bensaihi, are two of the main reasons why Black works as well as it does. This is the first feature film that either has appeared in, and they conjure up a gorgeous chemistry with their sweet, playful combativeness and youthful yearning. They both deserve to go far.
Another of Black’s strengths is the photography from Robrecht Heyvaert. Usually in films that focus on gangs, the cinematography is dull and grimy, highlighting the murky nature of the criminal underworld. In a striking break from that convention, the Brussels of Black looks like somewhere you’d actually want to visit. This underlines the idea that, however pretty a place may be, if you look a little closer, there’s probably darkness lurking.
With the help of two magnetic central performances, Black injects life into the oldest of stories, adding a new relevance and a new entreaty to heal those divides that are still very much part of life for many, centuries after the Montagues and Capulets destroyed each other.
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