“Bad Black” is a deliriously entertaining multi-genre mashup by the self-taught and staggeringly prolific Ugandan filmmaker Nabwana I.G.G. This supercharged mix of pretty good kung-fu, gloriously bad special effects and wickedly funny voiceover narration is also sprinkled with affecting drama and sharp social commentary that elevate it far above mere novelty status. Guaranteed to thrill midnight-movie geeks and well worth the attention of cineastes and film scholars, the film is enjoying a highly successful festival run and won the audience award at Austin Fantastic Fest. In light of this significant new exposure, and with the prospect of his movie becoming a cult hit, it will be very interesting to see what the future holds for Nabwana.
Nabwana (full name: Nabwana Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey) has cranked out nearly 40 features in the past 15 years. Since 2011 his principal collaborator has been Alan Hofmanis, a filmic jack-of-all-trades New Yorker who viewed the trailer for Nabwana’s “Who Killed Captain Alex” (2.8 million You Tube hits thus far) and arrived unannounced on the Ugandan’s doorstep shortly thereafter.
While “Bad Black” can be enjoyed without any knowledge of its production circumstances, those circumstances completely define Nabwana’s work and are worth noting briefly here. The director shoots exclusively in Wakaliga (nicknamed “Wakaliwood”), the slum district of his childhood. Props are made from whatever’s handy (e.g., sticks and packing tape become “guns”). Post-production is carried out on computers Nabwana built from salvaged parts.
Like many of the director’s previous films, “Bad Black” is inspired by 1980s Hollywood action cinema. Indeed, the first character we meet is Swaaz (Ssebankyaye Mohammed), the “Ugandan Schwarzenegger” who commits a robbery to save the life of his desperately ill wife. Here, and throughout the entire film, a wildly enthusiastic narrator (voiced by Emmie Bbatte) offers very funny English-language commentary on everything that’s happening. This revved-up hybrid of the benshi from Japanese silent cinema and the wisecracking Tom Servo character from “Mystery Science Theater 3000” has its origins in 1980s Uganda, where VJ’s (video jokers) provided translations and made cheeky quips during screenings at video clubs.
Hilarity gives way to serious drama when attention shifts to Black (Kirabo Beatrice), a poor young girl taken from her loving foster grandmother, Jajja (Namatovu Annet), and enslaved by vicious operators using children as beggars. The heartbreaking sight of Black witnessing the murder of a friend gives real emotional backbone to everything that follows, however over-the-top it might be.
Ten years later, Black (now played by Nalwanga Gloria), is a foxy femme hell-bent on getting even with every scumbag that done her wrong. Top of her list is Hirigi (Bisaso Dauda), a rich slimeball whose activities shed light on social and economic inequality in urban Uganda. While Black lays a honey trap for Hirigi, Nabwana throws in any number of crazy subplots. Best of the bunch involves Dr. Ssali (Hofmanis), a mild-mannered American aid worker caught in the crossfire of Black’s schemes. In a development that seems perfectly natural in Nabwana’s movie universe, a young lad known as Wesley Snipes (Rolean Kasule) orders the medico to toughen up and proceeds to put him through military training drills. Hey, presto, a commando fighting machine is born.
Elsewhere, Hirigi’s haughty wife (Nakaye Janeti) and good-for-nothing son Kenny (Kazibwe Ronald) are thrown into the wild melee of gunplay, kung-fu combat and car chases that follow Black wherever she goes. Nabwana never lingers too long anywhere: At one point when the pace appears to be slackening, the narrator calls out “boring!” and action shifts elsewhere.
Performed with infectious zeal by a cast of hundreds, “Bad Black” proves that under the right circumstances, enthusiastic amateurs can carry the day just as well as highly trained professionals. Technical work is basic but effective.