July 22nd, 2009 12:56:00
Black is a heist-meister of Senegalese origin, who is on his way to an ill-fated robbery when an African shaman interrupts his mission, declaring him to be the incarnation of the lion spirit, and predicting a new fight in the heart of Africa. Black ignores the witchdoctor as a street loony, especially when the heist goes horribly wrong and his partners end up dead. But his origins beckon to him in the form of an easy job back in Senegal; a huge load of diamonds have been deposited in a Senegalese bank with little security, and Black and is new makeshift crew are soon on a plane headed for the homeland.
Beefy French/Cameroonian rapper MC Jean Gab'1 (BANLIEUE 13) plays Black, his character a unique blend of toughness and childish enthusiasm that perfectly suits this reimagining of the blaxploitation genre. With BLACK, the raw energy of classics like SHAFT (1971), SWEET SWEETBACK’S BADASSSS SONG (1971), THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR (1973) and COTTON COMES TO HARLEM (1970) is infused with the slickness of the French action film and a heady dose of Senegalese mysticism to create a fascinating hybrid, all set to a feisty Afrobeat score.
The film specifically calls to mind SHAFT IN AFRICA (1973), and mirrors the concerns of the original blaxploitation films in terms of the self-sufficiency that those films provoked. Black left Senegal for Paris many years previous, thinking that Africa is just a barren landscape of goat herding and starvation; for an expert bank robber, it's small fries.
But the real riches have been in his own country all along. The class division in Africa – embarrassingly opulent estates hover untouched over a landscape of desperate poverty, the film's wealthy whites still using black people as human prey in perverse hunting games – and the exploitation of Africa's abundant resources by other countries signal a need for a hero of African origin, a symbol of self-sufficiency and revenge. Black may be motivated by self-serving capitalistic goals, but by the film's end he will have embraced his totem, and will emerge with a larger ambition in mind.
There have been so many debates about the blaxploitation era, and about the validity of the term blaxploitation in itself - but with the benefit of hindsight, BLACK reveals the goals of that period – black power, black self-sufficiency, and the realization that there are tremendous resources in one's own culture that can be re-appropriated to serve their own communities.
The inherent problem in the blaxploitation boom was that many of the directors were white, and participating black actors were frequently denounced by the NAACP as being complicit in their own exploitation. Although there were many black filmmakers - Ossie Davis, Gordon Parks, Melvin van Peebles - and some of them produced independent films that dealt with less sensationalistic subjects than films like SUPERFLY (1972) and SHAFT, filmmakers like actor-turned-filmmaker Fred Williamson was criticized for making westerns and period gangster films that were seen as 'white' genres. Critics from within the black community were divided on whether it was healthy for the cause to be relying on white institutions as a means of disseminating a black message. But many of the films address this exact issue: in Ivan Dixon’s THE SPOOK WHO SAT BY THE DOOR, a black nationalist infiltrates the CIA as a means of starting a guerrilla war. Black similarly approaches his mission armed with white tropes and value systems - which he eventually sheds when he realizes that the answer lies within himself.
It's been 40 years since the dawn of the blaxploitation boom, and while more recent films like those of the Hughes Brothers (MENACE II SOCIETY , AMERICAN PIMP ) or the BARBERSHOP films (2002-2004) still carry the torch as modern-day counterparts, BLACK's trippy French action sensibilities and the embracing of African culture - which is simultaneously exotic and familiar to our protagonist - make BLACK a distinct entry into the catalogue of black cinema.
-- Kier-La Janisse
BLACK plays Wednesday July 22 at 7:00pm in the Hall Theatre, with actor MC Jean Gab’1, director Pierre Laffargue and producer Lauranne Bourrachot in person for a Q+A after the screening.
Full description, including images, trailer, website and more at the film page HERE.