Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Bad Black (Uganda, 2016)

With Who Killed Captain Alex¸ Ugandan zero-budget auteur Isaac Nabwana, aka Nabwana I.G.G., proved his marketing acumen by allowing the film to be released for free on YouTube, paving the way for it to become a meme-producing internet phenomenon. With Bad Black, he further proves his savvy with the time tested practice of putting a white American actor at the forefront of his film. Given that white American is his charismatic co-producer Alan Hofmanis, that strategy has seemed to bear fruit, as evidenced by the heat the film has generated on the festival circuit.

Nabwana also exhibits a higher level of artistic ambition with the film, along with a developing social consciousness, given he positions it, to some extent, as a gritty portrait of life on the mean streets of Wakaliga, the Ugandan slum that plays home to Nabwana’s Ramon Studios. And the portrait of Wakaliga that Nabwana paints, while affectionate, is not a pretty one.

The film starts with Swaaz, a young father, and his son committing a violent bank robbery in order to pay the hospital bills of his wife, whose life is threatened by a compromised birth. After a car chase involving many delightfully naïve miniature effect, Swaaz is killed by the police in a video-game like CG explosion. Back at the hospital, Swaaz’s wife, when informed of his death, seemingly drops dead herself.

This leaves their infant daughter Sarah an orphan. She is turned over to an older woman, whose husband, several years later, casts Sarah out onto the street. The couple already has mouths to feed and, Sarah, not being their biological child, seems like an unnecessary expense to him. Thus little Sarah walks the darkened streets of Wakaliga, where, within minutes, she is kidnapped by a Fagin-like street boss who forces her to be part of his gang of child criminals. Adjusting awkwardly to this life, she is frequently abused by the boss and is even, at one point, shot by him. It’s a pretty grim episode that is only lightened by things like one of the kids wearing a bootleg Rugrats tee-shirt, which is probably a pretty accurate representation of what a street kid in Wakaliga would wear. I could almost hear M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” welling up on the soundtrack.

Skip forward a decade or so and Sarah, now played by Nalwanga Gloria, has become Bad Black, a philanthropic gangster who shares the spoils of her wrongdoing with the city’s poor while exacting vengeance against those who made her childhood miserable. At the same time we meet Dr. Ssali (Hoffmanis), a kindly American doctor who provides free medical care to the impoverished children of the village. The product of a military family, Ssali wears the dog tags of his father, mother and brother around his neck at all times. When these are stolen by members of Bad Black’s gang, he confides the loss to his assistant, a little kid named Wesley Snipes (really). Hilariously, the kid reacts by punching Ssali in the face and telling him to stop being such a pussy. Someone from a family of commandos would not take such an offense lying down, the child admonishes him.

This launches us into the best training montage ever, as this kid constantly punches and beats the mild mannered doctor with a stick while running him through a series of calisthenics and fight maneuvers that will ultimately turn him into a badass, kung fu fighting engine of vengeance, which it of course does. Then follows an absurd sequence in which Ssali, now armed with a huge machine gun (crafted from scrap metal by the Ramon props department), goes on a violent rampage through the city in search of his stolen dog tags. This eventually brings him face-to-face with the none-too-amused Bad Black.

Bad Black owes an obvious debt to the female-fronted American Blaxploitation films of the 70s, such as Coffee and Foxy Brown. As influences goes, you could do a lot worse. But what Bad Black has that those films don’t is the presence of freeform narrator VJ Emmie, who, as he did in Captain Alex, peppers the soundtrack with his energetic yammerings. These range from heroic exhortations (“You are a commando!”) to subtle observations (“What an asshole!”) to lamenting the conditions in Wakaliga (“Poo poo everywhere!”) to rye commentary (‘This doctor needs borders!”) to Tourettes-like single word exclamations (“Subaru!” “Movie!”) This time Emmie debuts something new in his bag of tricks by loudly proclaiming a long expository scene “boring” and fast forwarding the film to the next action scene. I have to admit that, being forewarned of Emmie’s presence in the film, I found him far less jarring than I did while watching Captain Alex and even laughed at a lot of his lines. This is also because I appreciate his role in making Nabwana’s films less prone to mockery by showing that the filmmakers themselves don’t take what they present all that seriously.

During the chaotic final battle scene, VJ Emmie contents himself with simply shouting the names of various Hollywood action stars as the Ugandan characters appear on screen; “Schwarzenegger!” “Stallone! “Van Damme!” Of course, this is a symptom of the unabashed movie fandom that makes these movies so fun to watch. But when, in the battle’s aftermath, Hoffmanis delivered the kiss-off line “Don’t fuck with Americans”, it made me wonder what a Wakaliwood that was not so self-consciously in Hollywood’s shadow might look like. Even the name Wakaliwood begs the comparison.

Not that that is all bad, mind you. In Bad Black’s accompanying materials, Hoffmanis states that the film had a budget of sixty-five dollars, while acknowledging that Captain Alex, rather than the reported two hundred dollars, had a budget closer to eighty dollars. That these films can delight as much as they do is more impressive for the fact that they do so free of Hollywood’s reflexive irony and cynicism. Clearly Nabwana and his crew make movies because movies are fun, inspiring, and often empowering. I imagine those simple facts are hard to see on the opposite end of a two hundred million dollar budget.

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