J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Sunday, October 08, 2017

Beyond Fest ’17: Bad Black

Uganda’s leading action filmmaker is resourceful and prolific, but he makes no secret of his Hollywood influences. In his latest throw-down, there are plenty of shout-outs to Ryan Gosling in Drive and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in Looper. No, of course not. His conception of American action films remains blissfully stuck in the 1980s. The names of Stallone, Van Damme, and especially Schwarzenegger will be invoked throughout Nabwana (Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey) I.G.G.’s epic sixty-eight-minute Bad Black (trailer here), which screens (for free) during the 2017 Beyond Fest.

Swaaz (short for you know who) is a decent guy, but he will commit a brazen heist to pay for his sick and pregnant wife’s medical bills. How does he relate to the story of Bad Black, the legendary Wakaliga gang leader? It is pretty obvious, but IGG will still try to keep it a secret until the third act. When we first meet Bad Black, she is a much-abused little girl, who takes control of her own destiny by killing the Dickensian master of her pan-handling gang. Her fellow former beggars will become the core of her feared street gang.

However, the grown Bad Black might bite off more than she can chew when she targets both the idealistic American medical missionary, Dr. Ssali, and Hirigi, a politically-connected, mobbed-up developer planning to raze the slum. Dr. Ssali (talk about your stereotypical American name) is determined to reclaim his passport and dog-tags, so he trains with his street urchin orderly, Wesley Snipes, to become a commando, just like his brother, father, mother, and dog back home in the U.S. (we’re not making any of this up). Meanwhile, Bad Black is seducing her way into Hirigi’s bank account.

Bad Black has such a loopy, go-for-broke sensibility that makes Nollywood movies look staid and focus-grouped. It starts with the gonzo narration, which is more like a cross-between a drunken Rifftrax audition and the guileless commentary of a hopeless naïf, who really is following the film on the edge of his seat. After twenty minutes, it becomes exhausting, but by the forty-minute mark you start to admire the sheer relentless chutzpah of it.

The special effects are deliriously DIY, on a level that would have underwhelmed Roger Corman in the early 1960s. Again, the brazen cheesiness of the green-screen work is sort of the point. However, during the unrelated opening prologue, it is sort of troubling that IGG opts to blow-up Katz’s deli. Of all the New York landmarks he could destroy, he chooses one that is deeply enmeshed in Jewish and Yiddish cultural history? Nice, thanks for that.

Assuming no sinister symbolism was intended, Bad Black is rather enjoyable as a spectacle of lunacy. Alan Hofmanis, the first westerner to appear in Ugandan cinema and IGG’s producing partner is certainly a good sport as Ssali (his adopted Nkima name) and even shows some legit screen presence. His co-stars aren’t likely to generate much awards buzz, but clearly everyone is doing their best.

Indeed, it is rather disappointing Uganda was not together enough to put forward Bad Black as its official Oscar foreign language submission. Oh well, maybe next year or the year after that. IGG will certainly keep them coming. Despite his eighties-centrism, IGG is still sufficiently up on the times to drop Zoe Bell’s name, along with Bruce Willis, Sly, Arnold, and JCVD. He also calls back the title character of his previous festival hit, Who Killed Captain Alex for a gag that will bewilder viewers who do not know the referenced film and will still feel pretty random to those who do. Frankly, Bad Black is worth seeing just to know it really is how it sounds. Recommended for cult cinema patrons, it screens this Wednesday (10/10), as part of Beyond Fest in Los Angeles.

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