An hour into “Black,” co-directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah’s powerhouse street romance, 15-year-old Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio) learns the consequences of stepping out with a member of a rival gang. It’s a brutal wake-up call, followed by a montage set to a sultry (white) hip-hop version of Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” Missing from this cover of the troubled siren’s melancholy ballad are these words — “You went back to what you knew / So far removed from all that we went through / And I tread a troubled track / My odds are stacked” — which best capture Mavela’s newly brainwashed state of mind. The first of its kind in Belgian cinema, this easily exportable, minority-driven drama has the potential to launch the careers of its young directors and cast, driving its star-crossed “West Side Story” formula into the 21st century.
Adapted from a pair of books by Flemish young-adult author Dirk Bracke, respected for not sugar-coating such gritty subjects as sex and violence, the bracingly tough pic benefits from hours of police ride-alongs and firsthand research into the dark side of Brussels, where one consequence of recent immigration has been an explosion in the number and ferocity of teen gangs. There’s plenty here to make locals nervous, starting with the brusque purse-snatching and breathless cross-city pursuit that introduces us to Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi), kid brother to the leader of a group of young Moroccan friends who call themselves the 1080s.
When his older sibling Nassim (Soufiane Chilah) takes the rap for the crime, Marwan is left more or less in charge, with no one to caution him how dangerous it would be to pursue his crush on Mavela, the coy Congolese gal he meets down at the local precinct — and what a place for two young miscreants to fall in love!
Like one of the carefree black teens in last year’s comparably tough “Girlhood,” Mavela is more rebel than criminal. Relatively new to the gang scene, she has been running with her cousin’s posse, a close-knit group of Africans who call themselves the Black Bronx. Though Mavela herself is too naive to know what her involvement with the gang means, the film makes clear that she’s in over her head from its menacing first shot: Rap music pounds as the credits unspool against a chain-link fence, behind which a group of out-of-focus figures violently assault an unseen victim.
The cops try to warn Mavela while she’s in custody, showing her photos of another girl who had her face chewed off by a pit bull for crossing the Black Bronx, which treats its female members as sexual property, turning vicious the instant their eyes stray outside the circle. As if that’s not bad enough, Mavela’s so-called friends pressure her to lure one of Marwan’s fellow Moroccans (his brother’s g.f., in fact) to their dungeon-like headquarters, crossing a line that will inevitably lead to a massive confrontation when Nassim gets out of jail.
By the time that happens, however, Mavela will hardly seem recognizable to audiences who witnessed her flirting childlike with Marwan early in the film — and that, more than the prospect of a Shakespearean double-suicide, is the “Romeo and Juliet”-worthy tragedy of “Black.” Whatever lightness we initially detected in her personality has been snuffed out by the gang’s harsh treatment, a form of physical and mental abuse that corrupts her every bit as dramatically as front-line service does the child soldiers seen in “Beasts of No Nation.” Inhaling a line of cocaine as Winehouse’s words haunt the ensuing montage, Mavela surrenders herself to the gang’s clutches, getting lost in black-lit dance clubs, starting sidewalk brawls and robbing convenience stores at gunpoint.
With its punchy, take-no-prisoners style, the film follows Bracke’s lead in peering straight into this urban heart of darkness, and though some could accuse it of stoking Belgium’s already raw anti-immigration sentiments, it’s worth noting that nearly all the film’s role models (the concerned cops and protective parents) are also people of color. It’s not race that makes these children monsters; rather, their behavior is a reaction to the racism they feel directed against them, asserting a strength they don’t feel as outsiders.
Captured in sleek yet unflinching widescreen by talented Flemish d.p. Robrecht Heyvaert (who also shot this year’s “The Ardennes”), “Black” intercuts Mavela’s descent from carefree teen to hardened banger with the Marwan’s less compelling attempts to rescue her. Though charismatic, newcomer Bensaihi doesn’t have nearly the arc of his female co-star (all 16 of the young roles were all cast off the streets), nor does his gang even seem well organized enough to be considered as such. As velvety-dark as the pic’s dynamic imagery can be, the co-directors surprise by relying on a light, Gustavo Santaolalla-sounding folk-string score during character moments, going “back to black” with more stereotypically thuggish hip-hop tracks whenever violence looms.