This review was originally posted following SXSW 2009. Since the film has now been released for pre-order to the U.S. market, I decided to re-post the review in order to drum up interest and prime the pump for the SXSW 2010 reviews I will post later this week.
Black is a French nouveau Blaxploitation heist film, in which a group of Parisian North Africans pull a bank heist in Dakar and end up embroiled in a gang war that involves con men, a Russian Spetsnaz Colonel, a shaman, American military contractors, giant machete-wielding wrestlers, a femme fatale from Interpol, a witch, and an arms dealer who's mutating into a snake. If that list didn’t excite you, this isn’t your movie.
The current racial tension in France is roughly analogous to that of 1970s America, so it makes sense that French directors are becoming attracted to the strong, virile, anti-establishment heroes of the American Blaxploitation era (think Shaft or ) as both artistically interesting and commercially bankable. To his credit, director Pierre Laffargue has no qualms about hijacking the genre and running with it as far as it can go, including bloody bank heists, sexy cast members, kung fu, big guns, nasty white villains, and a soundtrack that’s unapologetically funky. The end result is dizzying, violent and leaves the viewer with a lunatic grin.
The best thing about Black is MC Jean Gab’1 (District B-13, District 13: Ultimatum), the French rapper who portrays the titular character. MC Jean keeps the film grounded with his wicked smile, tough-but-handsome face and precisely delivered one-liners. (The best of which has him pulling grenades from a glove compartment and growling, “If they want Beirut, I’ll give them Beirut!”) The man’s got talent, which only shines all the more in a film where every actor consciously and consistently goes over the top. The manic Russian Colonel is especially fun to watch. In this era of “realistic” depictions of Batman and James Bond, it’s nice to see a villain that jumps out of hiding with a grin on his face and shouts, “Ah ha!” The Interpol agent played by Carole Karemera is the closest thing to subtlety in the movie, which isn't saying much, but she plays her part competently... or maybe Ms. Karemera is just really beautiful—it’s hard to tell when she’s speaking in such dreamy French. The action scenes aren’t anything we’ve never seen before, but they’re shot with an urgency and personality that makes them breathless. The soundtrack, as noted, is delicious ‘70s retro, beginning with a funk remix of the theme from 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The only fly in the ointment is a subplot where the leads begin to, literally, morph into animals. If you feel uncomfortable seeing urbane, modern characters with African ancestry transformed into jungle beasts via tribal magic, rest assured that you’re not the only one. At least that's what the nervous laughter in the theater told me. The French have a different standard of what’s racially appropriate than the United States, where this wouldn't fly. It doesn’t spoil the film, but for a few crucial minutes, this guilty pleasure offers up more guilt than pleasure.
Black was by far the most bizarre film experience I had at SXSW this year, which is really saying something, since I also saw a short film about a cupcake sailing to an island of vegetables. Black is easily worth a rent, if only for its sheer madcap zaniness.
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