SXSW Day Two: "Black"
It's a French blaxploitation film set mostly in Africa. And it's awesome.
I guess I'm going to have to finally write my review of "Black Dynamite" from Sundance after this. Seeing "Black," the French film that played as one of the midnight movies on Saturday at SXSW in Austin, I think I'm finally able to articulate why that earlier Sundance sensation didn't quite sit right with me. No matter, though... for anyone who genuinely enjoys black American cinema of the '70s in all its forms, high and low, is in for a huge treat as soon as an American distributor steps up to acquire what could easily be a breakout hit, a movie that manages to mix African mysticism, blaxploitation, and the heist thriller into something that felt truly original. I loved it... and I'm willing to bet others will, too.
MC Jean Gab'1 (any fan of Jean Gabin's work has gotta love that rap name) is probably most familiar to American genre fans as one of the bad guys from "District B13," but based on his work here, I'd love to see the guy break out as an international movie star. He's got a great face, and he's able to convincingly handle all the action while always bringing a sly, subtle humor to everything. He's not just a presence... this guy's the real deal, a very good actor in the body of an action hero. Carole Karemera is just as visually striking, just as powerfully built, and she makes a fitting female lead opposite Gab'1. She plays Pamela, a woman whose fate it completely tied to the fate of Black, Gab'1's character. The chemistry between these two is a big reason the film works. They don't really meet until about a third of the way into the movie, but once they do, it's immediate, almost electric, and the film (which is already very good at that point) gets a jumpstart that carries it even higher.
[more after the jump]
So what's it about? Black is a bank robber in Paris, and the film opens with a bank robbery that goes fairly wrong. Black's the only guy who gets away, and as he's trying to decide what to do or how to hide, he gets a call from a distant cousin living in Dakar, Senegal, who wants to offer him a piece of a huge score. He works in a bank, and he just saw someone deposit millions of dollars worth of uncut diamonds. It's an old bank with weak security, and as soon as he describes the conditions, Black puts a team together and heads for Africa. When a series of circumstances puts Black on the run with Pamela, who works for Interpol, things start to get both very dangerous and very weird, as ancient prophecy and modern policework put them on a collision course with a mysterous figure known as "The Snake."
Here's what's really amazing about "Black." Yes, it is paying homage to blaxploitation in terms of the archetypes, the acting, the vibe of the film... but it's not trying to look like some artifact from the '70s, and its not a spoof. It's not trying to ape the look of those older films. Instead, it's very modern. Very slick. And the soundtrack manages to retain a '70s funk feel while also using more modern arrangments, mixing things up a bit. This is a film that understands that blaxploitation wasn't about camp... it was about empowering a group of people who weren't used to seeing themselves as the heroes up onscreen, who weren't allowed to carry a movie by themselves, who were never really given love scenes on film. Director Pierre Laffargue obviously understands the appeal of '70s blaxploitation, shooting "Black" in gorgeous 2.35:1 Panavision, keeping all the action rough and raw instead of over-choreographing it or trying to ape the way most action is shot right now. This isn't about choreography or wire work or being slick... the action is all sort of raw and spontaneous and feels old school in the best possible way.
And, yeah... the film takes some crazy narrative left turns in a few places. In particular, there's a choice that they were talking about in the Q&A last night, saying the producer originally hated it and wouldn't even consider letting them try it until someone evoked the name of Jacques Tourneur, which pretty much shut him down. Part of what I love about the film is how impossible it would be to predict the way it all unfolds at the start of the movie, but when you look back at it, there are a million little hints and clues built in. It's a solid script by Lucio Mad and Gabor Russov, and it takes advantage of people's ingrained assumptions about Africa to play games with audience expectation, constantly thwarting any assumptions you have about where the film's headed.
Once again, Fantastic Fest and SXSW have uncovered another gem. Last night was the world premiere of the film, and it won't open in France until June. That means American genre fans are going to have to wait a little while for this one, but believe me... it's worth it. I'd love to see sequels with the same stars, and I hope the movie becomes enough of a genuine hit for that to happen, and for Laffargue to get noticed as a filmmaker, which he absolutely deserves to be.
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