Kolkata IFF screening 5: Black (France 2009)

Mata Gabin as Fatoumata with the community of wrestlers in Dakar. This image effectively represents the 'African-ness' of the film.

This was the one screening that I attended without any foreknowledge and it proved to be very enjoyable with an interesting subtext. It’s a conventional genre film in a new setting and with some interesting extra elements. I thought it only fell down (like Landscape No. 2) because of a single character who seemed to belong to another movie.

‘Black’ is actually the name of the central character, an African-French bank-robber of Senegalese extraction played by the music star MC Jean Gab’1 (i was too slow to spot that his name is a reference to Jean Gabin, doh!) . He’s a bit like Vin Diesel but with charisma. The film begins with a traditional African elder in full ceremonial gear (he reminded me most of the grandfather in Souleymane Cissé’s The Wind) wandering through the streets of suburban Paris and stopping before a refuse truck driven by Black. On seeing the scar on Black’s face, he proclaims that it is the ‘sign of the lion’ and that the lion and the panther must work together to defeat the snake. It’s easy to forget about this scene because the narrative then swings into action mode and the refuse truck is revealed as cover for an armed robbery which goes spectacularly wrong. Black escapes in dramatic fashion and is recovering in his room when he gets a phone call from his cousin in Dakar suggesting that he fly out to Senegal and raid a bank where a bag of diamonds is stashed. The inference is that this will be easy for sophisticated Parisian crooks. So he rounds up three local hoods and boards a flight. This is a French re-working of Shaft in Africa (1973). But, of course, things have changed since the 1970s and Dakar is not a city of naive country boys. Black finds himself in competition with at least three other groups – the diamond smugglers themselves, a local arms dealer and an Interpol agent. So far, so conventional. The terrific official website (in English and French) actually declares the film to be a form of hommage to the blaxploitation films of the early 1970s – something reflected in the excellent music score with its nods towards Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield. The website also explains the sense of familiarity with several of the cast. The African elder is a Sembène Ousmane regular and others have appeared for Jacques Audiard and Mathieu Kassovitz.

I haven’t found out much about director and co-writer Pierre Laffargue (it’s his first feature at 42) or about the rest of what seems to be a French crew, but there must be some Senegalese input since the scenes in Dakar have a very authentic feel. The executive producer is listed as Ndiouga Moctar Ba who also has a production credit on Bamako (Mali 2006). Perhaps it is his knowledge? The website is more helpful as it points to an original writer who sadly died before the production, but who knew African stories.  It also reveals that Pierre Laffargue has worked in animation, TV, web and games production and that his film director muse is Jacques Tourneur – not a bad pick. Some critics have likened the film to the Bourne trilogy, but that seems to massively underplay its sense of place and feel for local culture. I’ve not been to Dakar but I’ve watched enough of Sembène and Djibril Diop Mambéty to recognise the city. Somebody on the production side knows these films.

I don’t want to give too much of the entertaining plot away, but in the third section the film shifts into what some scholars of African Cinema have called the ‘return to source’ mode. This is a reference to folklore, African religions and African history pre European colonisation. The image above points to this in the appearance of a troupe of wrestlers wielding machetes and working initially for Fatamatou – a woman with interesting powers. In order to survive Black has to be ‘reborn’ as the lion. At this point I was reminded of the old Paul Robeson movie from the 1930s, Song of Freedom, in which an African in London returns to Africa to fulfil his destiny. Black plays this much more lightly and tongue in cheek, but that authenticity is still there.

The character which doesn’t work is a Russian mercenary leader. The playing of Anton Yakovlev seems wildly out of kilter – which is a shame as I realised later that I’d seen the same actor as highly convincing in Jacques Audiard’s The Beat that My Heart Skipped and also the Dardennes Brothers’ The Silence of Lorna.

The film has played at various horror and cult film festivals internationally and it had a French theatrical run in July 2009, but doesn’t seem to have troubled the box office. I’m surprised as it seems to have the makings of a cult hit. It seemed to me both intelligent and highly entertaining and that’s not always a common combination.

Here’s the trailer from the South by SouthWest Festival:

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