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Belgian first “blaxploitation” film Black causes problems : children not allowed !

Tuesday 17 November 2015, by SIGNIS

Brussels, November 17th, 2015 (SIGNIS/Guido Convents). Last week, at the first public screening of the Belgian-Flemish film Black, in the Brussels major commercial cinema ‘Kinepolis’ which was attended by mostly youngsters from North-African origin, the police intervened with violence. As all tickets were sold out and still hundreds wanted to get in, it created some chaos to which the nervous police forces reacted.

A few days before this event, the film-makers Adil elArbi and Billal Fallah said that some cinemas in Brussels had refused to programme the film. They insinuated that these cinemas acted out of “racism” and were “afraid” to show the film for Belgians of African origins. What they did not say was that these cinemas were specialized in art-house-films. They were not interested in the film, not because of “racism”, but because it is described by the film-makers as a “commercial American action film” distributed by Kinepolis itself!

The result of these “racist inspired troubles” and “so called censorship” in the capital of Europe got national and international media attention, something that the film makers had wished for and had provoked. But let us focus on the film. What kind of film is it?

If you define a Blaxploitation film as having an almost entire black cast and a gangster story set in an urban poor neighborhood, made with a low budget (compared to the Hollywood productions) and with urban afro-related music, then Black entirely corresponds to this definition.

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Billal Fallah - Adil elArbi

The film also has a number of other ingredients, typical of this genre which was at its height in the 1980’s. These are action, violence, drugs, sex and its own slang to attract the audience. The film-makers, very popular with the Belgian youth of North-African origin, aimed at young adolescents and they and their producer criticized the national film commission for classifying the film for a public older than sixteen. Even if the film is highly violent, the film-makers are pleading to abolish this age restriction. One main reason for this is that producers and film-makers are always fighting to avoid the “moral” qualification in order to get to a bigger audience and income.

They said that such an evaluation and recommendation – it is not an obligation- is something old fashioned and the film could be seen by a much younger public. They argued that the film was based on a very successful children’s book. They stated in an interview that they wanted to show young people, younger than sixteen, that joining a gang was not the best thing they should do. That is why they wanted to show the “reality” of these urban gangs with their violence and above all the difficulty to leave once joined. But in Brussels, with a population of a million inhabitants, there are only a dozen of gangs and they are not all that violent. They involve a few hundreds of young people. It is a rather marginal phenomenon, which got, due to the film, extra attention.

Another element in praising their own film was that it is the first time in Flemish-cinema (although the film is mostly French spoken), that the cast is almost entirely young Belgians of African origins. It has to be said that they perform well. To find these young actors, they created with a friend a new casting company, which searched in the streets of Brussels for them. The theme of the film-makers was “Voices to the voiceless and giving a face to the faceless”: They wanted to make young Belgians from African origin visible on screen, because they are still absent from the Flemish-Belgian audiovisual landscape. But how did they make them visible?

With their former film “ Image ”, they already claimed to dismantle negative stereotypes of Africans such as the cliché that "most of them are criminals" . Though they did not completely succeed, the film got a warm welcome by young Belgians of North African origins. This is partly due to the charisma of one of the two film-makers and to their provocative and rather unnuanced way of presenting the issue of North African Belgians confronted with discrimination in Belgium.

From the view of the film-makers, all of these elements would be a guarantee for success. And they were right: Black was presented in September at the Toronto film festival where it won the Discovery award, which no Belgian film ever got before. In October, the film won the prize of the public at the Ghent International film festival. The media and the public broadcaster were euphoric and gave the film-makers the floor, in an uncritically way. Only positive critiques were given, saying that the film was a revelation. One has to admit that Black is a well-made commercial film and has a strong Hollywood touch in the camera work, cutting and sound. The result is that Hollywood showed its interest and the film-makers got themselves an American agent. They are already receiving new scripts to read. They admitted that their ultimate dream is to make films in Hollywood.

A Romeo and Julia story? Or a stigmatization of Africans?

Black is kind of a Romeo and Julia story. It is the story of two gangs of youngsters in Brussels: one, the 1080s is composed of (white) Belgians of Moroccan origin and the other, the Black Bronx, is composed of (black) Belgians of Sub-Saharan origin.

The youngest member of the Black Bronx, Mavela, 15, falls in love with Marwan, a member of the 1080s. Both gangs already had a number of violent confrontations, so it makes their relationship complicated. The two lovers have a secret meeting point, in a Catholic church closed for restoration, because they know that if someone in either gang learns about their relationship, they would both be in very serious trouble. They soon realize that if they want to stay together, they have to leave their gangs.

If one analyses the gangs, one discovers not only stereotyping but also a reinforcing of certain stereotypic views of Africans which dehumanize them even more. The members of the 1080s are of North African origin, just like the film-makers, and they are presented as a big family of adolescents committing small crimes, dealing marihuana and having fun. Marwan and his friends are rather sympathetic. Yes, they harass and insult the police and one of their main actions is throwing Molotov cocktails at a police car, but this is seen as “cool”, not only in the gang world, but also among the frustrated youngsters of the second and third generation migrants of North Africa in the French banlieues. Interesting is also that Loubna, the fiancée of the leader, who is Marvans’ brother, is presented as a decently dressed girl having a job as waitress.

On the other side, the Black Bronx is not at all represented as a family, but rather as a macho organization where terror and horror reign. They deal cocaine and use guns. One thing is common in both gangs: the girls are considered as objects.

The young Mavela left school; she does not work, and always hangs out with the gang. She is dressed as a normal Belgian girl of her age, which is not decent in the eyes of a lot of Africans of North African origin, Marwan sees her as sexy with her short dresses and pants. He starts flirting with her. After a clash between the two gangs, the members of the Black Bronx catch Marwan’s brother’s fiancée (Loubna) and rape her (this is not shown, only suggested). Later, when the Black Bronx leader who has apparently a past of child soldier in Africa, discovers that Mavela has an affair with Marwan, she is “beastly” gang raped in the church by the Black Bronx members - her own gang- and this is shown in a more explicit way. The violence of this gang is not human which is made explicit as the leader uses a dog to mutilate the face of girls who want to leave the gang. It is almost a direct connection with the images the world sees from the war atrocities and the child soldiers in Central Africa.

It is also interesting to note the way both girls react after the rapes. The audience sees that Loubna is sick and in distress, she does not go to the police and does not want anybody to know about it. On the other hand, Marvela does not seem to be “ashamed” and she goes to the police to denounce the perpetrators.

At the end, both Marwan and Mavela die, shot by the leader of the Black Bronx, a rather fatalistic way of considering the world of the gangs in Brussels. Cinematographically it is a cliché ending, Hollywood style.

In one word Black is a real old fashion “blaxploitation” film.

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