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Black (2009)
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by Jay Seaver

"Crazy cool African action."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2009 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: I've seen "Black" at two different film festivals this year, and both times it was introduced as "blaxploitation" or in that tradition. I don't necessarily see it that way; certainly, there are moments that recall those 1970s films, and the cast is primarily dark-skinned, but it's a far more polished film than that moniker would imply. It's also crazier - out-there enough that I didn't review it at SXSW because I wasn't sure how much of what I recalled the morning after that midnight screening was actually part of the movie.

The film opens with an armored car robbery that ends badly enough that ringleader Black (MC Jean Gab'1) is considering not just laying low, but going straight. Well, briefly - that's before he gets a call from his cousin Lamine (Ibrahima Mbaye) in Dakar. There's a bunch of conflict diamonds in the poorly guarded bank where Lamine works as a guard - no problem for a Parisian crook like Black, right? Except that the bank's branch manager Kumassi (Michel B. Dupérial) has also told local arms dealer DeGrand (François Levantal) about it, and DeGrand needs money to appease soldier of fortune Viktor (Anton Yakovlev) - who, once he hears about it, figures he may as well cut out the middleman. And Kumassi's corruption is becoming a little too well-known, as Pamela N'Diyae (Carole Karemera) has been sent to the branch to keep an eye on things and tighten up security.

Oh, and have we mentioned that DeGrand's girlfriend is a witch-doctor, and before the heist at the start of the movie, Black was stopped by an African mystic saying that he was the lion and had to find the panther, whatever that means?

Describing Black as blaxploitation does it a disservice not just because director Pierre Laffargue and company have made a film that is slick where those movies were often rough around the edges, but because blaxploitation was very much a product of its time and place, and neither this film's Paris nor Dakar is a close match for the American inner cities associated with the genre. The nifty soundtrack tends toward African beats and French hip-hop more than funk. And for all blaxploitation's seventies flamboyance, I'm not sure how often it went for the same sort of crazy that Laffargue (and co-writers Lucio Mad and Gábor Rassov) go for in the movie's last act, with animal spirits and plot twists that threaten to leave stolen diamonds forgotten.

The path from heist flick to battle between good and evil also makes a stop in Midnight Run territory, and is packed with plenty of action. There's shootouts, car chases, and mad dashes, and they're all well-staged; you can see what's going on clearly enough to be impressed by the amount of people and vehicles they're throwing around. It's not rinky-dink stuff. What's particularly impressive is how each action piece is more over-the-top than the last, but even as the villains start cackling maniacally, bringing out even bigger guns, and growing scales while Black and N'Diyae start bantering back and forth, it's still thrilling rather than silly.

That banter does a nice job keeping the second half of the movie moving. The movie isn't missing anything before Black's and N'Diyae's paths cross, though, because rapper MC Jean Gab'1 is able to own the screen alone or with any manner of co-star. As Black, he's got this sort of cool-but-not-cold demeanor that reassures us that he is, in fact, good enough at this stuff to make little jokes even though the movie is about all of his plans going to hell. Carole Karemera doesn't have quite the same easy charisma, but she's absolutely able to sell that N'Diyae is a total pro at what she does, as smart as Black and probably tougher, in no way the damsel in distress. Levantal and Yakovlev both play fine variants of crazy as the movie's villains, the sort that make the audience laugh at their insanity without seeming any less effective.

Which, in a way, is "Black" in a nutshell: It's crazy, both in what happens and the way it shows it, but that doesn't take away from being a big, fun action movie.

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originally posted: 09/04/09 13:39:27
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival For more in the 2009 South By Southwest Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Fantasia Festival For more in the 2009 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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