"Ultimately this is a film that is hard to watch only if you’re not able to face up to what it is trying to say"

Black is a French film set in Brussels with its subject matter being love, loyalty, gang power struggles and their interconnectedness within the youth culture contained therein. A subtle commentary on racial and immigrant hatred, Black puts everything we fear in stereotypes of black and Moroccan migrants in front of us and then contrasts it with the humanity often missed in a brutally beautiful fashion.

The film opens by introducing us to Marwan, the younger brother of Nassim whom leads the local Moroccan Gang the 1080s. Running parallel to him is the story of his Romantic interest Mavela, a younger cousin of Alonzo whom is second in command to ‘X’ the leader of The Black Bronx. The first half of the film focuses on the prejudice they face and the hatred that shapes them but avoids any sympathetic set-ups or exposition. We are shown head on that they steal, fight, drink and in the case of The Black Bronx rape for revenge and initiation. They are portrayed as a gang would be in the media; thugs and thieves looking to make a living in a system they hate and that hates them.

The film makes a point of establishing Marwan and Mavela’s love for each other and throughout the film this grows organically. They go on dates, make jokes and have a genuine dynamic that is cloaked in an overarching threat. They come from rival gangs, know that they do but in their youthful naiveté still revel in this fact. The gangs are cool to them, they are as many a teenager is, engrossed in the glamorous grittiness of their lifestyle. A particular scene of note is when the Black Bronx and 1080s go on separate stealing sprees, the instrumental from Tray Songs ‘Foreign’ is played with a French gangster rapper riffing over it. A subtle but ultimately brilliant testament to how focused this film is in its message; here are your immigrants for what they are; now lets see them for who they are.

We are then introduced to the reality of things pretty quickly, as Mavela’s mother warns her of danger and she brushes it off as unsympathetic. The Black Bronx becomes a far more hostile place for her as she begins to realise that there is a threat from the returning ‘X’, who wishes to claim Mavela as a trophy.  This is where the body of the film delves deeper into three major aspects throughout Mavela’s arc. As a woman enamoured in a gang, she is being lured into a life of abuse, that to become one with the life she finds so fascinating is in fact a corruption of her character and loss of innocence.

Second, the very reason Mavela and Marwan find these lives so fascinating is because they don’t have anything to culturally identify with in proud fashion. It is exactly the prejudice projected onto them that makes them who they are. And finally, despite both their parents being hard working and ambitious people it is seen as a form of submission to the system. Gangs to Mavela and Marwan are the only escape from being engrossed in a life where progress is slanted against them. We see this with Mavela’s conversation with her mother and Marwan’s with his father which can be summed up as ‘why would I want to be like you when I can take what I want’.

As we get to the middle of the film tensions rise between the two gangs, violence erupts between them but the 1080s are shown to be younger and therein less volatile. The Black Bronx are a foil for the 1080s, a natural progression and foil for their characters. It is when Mavela and Marwan fall in love and consummate that love in a church that they begin to question whether this life is worth living. Mavela as a woman will forever be abused and Marwan as a man will never be able to provide a life full of love; everything is lined with violence.

Outside of all of this we have the police who are portrayed as hypocritical but also as a gang within themselves. They persecute the gangs for being gangs and yet behave like a gang. They capture, beat up, threaten and harass the characters only for a particularly empathic detective to try and goad Mavela into giving him leads. This lends credence to the overall message, that love and loyalty are ultimately all they want but they don’t have a choice in whom they love and are loyal to. This is what makes the central romance so powerful; the two characters are choosing to love each other despite the violence, hatred and awful acts happening around them.

The film may falter in its subject matter to those not able to stomach it. The brutal portrayal of gang life, the explicit scenes in all their gory detail and the almost chronic rape scenes could be omitted for a more subtle approach. But this is not a film trying to be artistic, it is a love story contained in a gangster flick which in itself makes for something ironically artistic. The sexualisation of rape is appalling and it is difficult to discern whether this was done to simply have sex in the movie or to shock the movie goer. The facts are that these scenes should show it’s brutality in its totality and not tone it down for the admirer of such scenes.

Ultimately this is a film that is hard to watch only if you’re not able to face up to what it is trying to say. It has its flaws in its execution but the overarching message is strong and somewhat forced. The film does a good job at contrasting the stereotypes of these gangs with the people behind them but it does so in an almost try hard way. So in small instances it gets confused in what exactly its trying to show us, the horror of gang life, the love blossoming between two young migrants in the wrong place at the wrong time or just the chaotic lifestyles these people lead.