We all know the Romeo & Juliet archetype: a young boy meets a young girl who is supposed to be his enemy, but ends up dying for her in the name of love. Adaptations of William Shakespeare’s story have been done time and time again, from the musical “West Side Story” to Braz Luhrmann’s “Romeo + Juliet.”
Story By Emily Nash
Now comes the newest Belgian adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, “Black”, directed by Adil Del Arbi and Billal Fallah, which premiered at SXSW. “Black” tells the story of 15-year-olds Mavela (Martha Canga Antonio) and Marwan (Aboubakr Bensaihi) who must choose between love and loyalty to their gangs.
Trigger Warning: this movie is heavily graphic. Also, there are spoilers ahead.
The opening scene follows Marwan breaking into a car and stealing a purse from a woman, running from her husband and giving the purse to his gang for them to dig through. This scene sets the rest of the movie: these young kids are criminals who feed off of violence and thievery.
Worlds collide when Marwan, a Moroccan member of the 1080 gang and Mavela, a member of the Black Bronx meet at the police station. It’s not clear that the Black Bronx and 1080 are enemies at this point, however they exchange numbers and thus begins the tragic love story.
The rivalry between the two gangs seems to begin with conflict on a train, which escalates into a huge physical fight at the train station. Mavela and Marwan continue seeing each other, though, hiding their relationship from the gangs. They seek a hiding spot in an abandoned chapel until word gets out that Mavela and Marwan are seeing each other. That’s when things get ugly for Mavela.
Mavela is gang raped by the Black Bronx after they find out about her relationship with Marwan. Now she realizes that the Black Bronx don’t play games: either she follows the rules or suffers severe consequences. Mavela stops seeing Marwan without telling him what happened and she steps up her role in Black Bronx. Now, she gets into fights on the streets, does hard drugs and even robs a liquor store at gunpoint.
As time goes on and Mavela becomes more unhappy, she decides to reach out to the police. Before the police make arrests though, 1080 and the Black Bronx meetup at the train station. Things get violent quickly, and Mavela runs in front of a bullet aimed at Marwan. The bullet hits them both just as the police enter the scene and they tragically fall to the ground. The ending scene is an overhead shot of each of the gang members getting arrested, with Mavela and Marwan lying right in the middle, bleeding to their death.
While “Black” follows the typical Romeo & Juliet story plot, this movie is less of a dumb, young love adversity and more of a tragedy due to real life situations. The richness of Belgium’s diverse cultures are emphasized by the number of languages spoken; the movie takes place in Belgium, however the characters bounce between French, Arabic and Dutch.
“Black” isn’t about the glamour of Europe and it doesn’t star white actors who play the roles of middle class characters. It’s about the reality of gang-stricken neighborhoods that are plagued by violence. It’s about kids who were born in Belgium, but don’t belong because their parents are immigrants, so they turn to crime instead. And, most obviously, it’s about love that’s just not meant to be. The movie highlights the city of Brussels, both the beauty and intimidation of the streets through the prepossessing cinematography.
Now that “Black” has gained recognition by winning an award at the Toronto Film Festival and making its way to SXSW, it’s about time countries all over the world catch up with films that feature the underdogs. Europe and the United States alike are culturally rich, however the film industry doesn’t always showcase that diversity, especially when it comes to hardships that immigrants and people of color face.
The graphic violence, the colorful scenes, the cinematography and even the soundtrack make for a beautiful, yet tragic movie about love and shitty circumstances that is much deeper and realer than the typical Romeo and Juliet archetype.