Author’s Note: Due to the somewhat controversial subject matter of this film — political intrigue in a West Africa country by white businessmen — please note this is a film review that addresses the creative art of filmmaking only. This review is not a political dissertation in support of or in contradiction of any sociopolitical belief system and is not intended to incense any reader regarding race, social or free speech/opinion issues. This review was written to expose a film that attempts to help the viewer reach an understanding regarding the universal ills of corruption in our world.
“Mama never thought you were a bad person. She just thought you brought bad luck.”
— Ada to Carlos
Carlos and Susan (real life acting couple Raúl Arévalo and Melina Matthews) reside in Brussels, Belgium, where Carlos is an expectant father — his wife is eight months pregnant — and a corporate lawyer for the Euro-division of a U.S. oil company. His mother, Elena, works as a diplomat at the United Nations (when we first meet the couple, Carlos’s mother is the guest of honor at — an exquisitely-shot — U.N. award dinner). Both live with the hopes that their current, upper-class life of luxury will only grow as Carlos vies for a full-associates position with the corporation and relocate his soon-to-be-expanded family to New York City.
Of course, the catch, i.e, blackmail, to securing the promotion is for Carlos to travel to a remote, West African island country off the coast of the Republic of Ghana. His “mission” is to negotiate the release of Steve Campbell, an American oil engineer, who’s been kidnapped by a rebel insurgent, Calixto Batete (Madrid, Spain-born and New York-trained Jimmy Castro) — who’s a former friend of Carlos.
Forced into using an old friend against the island nation’s democratically-corrupt government? To save a deal for drilling rights on a newly discovered, large oil deposit? Yeah, this isn’t going to go all to film noir hell-in-a-hand-basket.
To earn the release of Campbell, Carlos enlists another old friend and colleague, Alejandra, and her girlfriend Eva. Through them he discovers that Calixto married Carlos’s ex-girlfriend, Ada, and their son, Cal Jr., is the thought-to-be-aborted son of Carlos. Amidst Carlos’s skeletons falling out of the closet, he comes to discover the kidnapping plot is a scam designed to retrieve damning documents regarding the oil company’s clandestine operations with the county’s corrupt president, who’s aligned with the terrorist organization MIA, which lead to a genocide of the island’s citizens, the Zandes.
Complicating matters is that he must travel to Black Beach, where the rebels are holding the kidnapped Ada. (The film’s title is a reference to the volcanic-deposited black sand beaches along the African coast; however, here, it is a reference to the prison where Ada is being held; think U.S. unacknowledged “black site/black operation.”) And once Carlos discovers the critical documents (at about the one hour fifteen minute mark), the film goes dark, as Carlos is on the run across Zandes’ lands and the government’s armies callously mow down citizens with a machine-gunned equipped helicopter; the Zandees fight back with machetes and rocket launchers — and it’s bloody and gruesome.
Black Beach is a world where everyone is corrupt: the oil company, the African government, and the United Nations . . . and everyone’s souls. And you feel the poverty and fears faced by the West African peoples.
As with any James M. Cain or Dashiell Hammett tale of yore, all of the noir (yes, intricate) plot corkscrew markers of blackmail, greed, moral corruption, love, lust, and violence are in check. And the exotic, unfamiliar West African locations raise the proceedings above the noir ante norms. I was almost worried we were going to be racing around the streets of Brussels (been there, done that) or New York (not again). So it was nice that the narrative shifted to West Africa for a nice, visual (and very well-shot) change of pace.
These qualities, however, are overlooked as result of many critics-in-the-negative perturbed over the “white savior” aspect of the narrative (?), and reading-in a now de rigueur “white privilege” sub-plot argument where none is needed nor the point of the film; it’s just a retro-film noir piece. Another issue reviewers have is that a black child comes into the care of a white-Hispanic family. Perhaps if a better-known star, like Liam Neeson (Raúl Arévalo reminds me of Sean Penn, but no one is casting Sean in films anytime soon), would make things more palpable, as the familiar allows for an easier digestion of a film.
Others, if not put off by the race-bend of the material, find the plot “confusing” and “long.” Well, again . . . Black Beach, while more-akin to Neeson’s aging-action star films — only with less blow-up, bullet-holed action — is actually a more-twisty noir. But I don’t blame those detractors, I get it. I know, from my own fandom experiences of attempting to expose friends to the film noir genre (I’ve had them tell me, flat out, Double Indemnity, “sucks,” for example), a twist of Cain sours most cups of green tea. (Yes, and I’ve had friends squish their faces when they see me drink green tea . . . “Eww, it’s so bitter, etc.” And so it goes.)
The only downside (for moi) is the film’s length pushing just 10-minutes short of the two-hour mark — thus this film is a takes-it-time slow burn (as a good noir should; if you want quick and easy, watch a U.S. soap opera or cop procedural drama). But Black Beach is, while a Spanish-Belgium made film, no different than any U.S. major studio film that deals in political intrigue. Streaming commenters have taken the film’s subtitles on the Spanish/Euro prints and English dub on the U.S. prints to task as being “out-of-sync,” which made the film a wee difficult to follow. I watched the subtitled version — and skimmed the English dub — and I found no issues in those areas: I followed the film quite clearly.
However, those qualms in no way detract from the quality brought to the screen by Estaban Crespo and his cast of actors (I really like Jimmy Castro in this; his Calixto honestly communicates a loyalty to his country and people). Its multiple award nods in cinematography, editing, and sound are well-warranted. And the acting’s fine, too.
After writing and directing seven shorts, Crespo made his feature film debut with the romantic drama Amar (2017), based on his 2005 short of the same name. Black Beach is his first, widest-exposure and internationally-distributed feature, which shot in Madrid, Spain, Gran Canaria, Canary Islands, Spain (The Clash of the Titans and Jesús Franco’s Mansion of the Living Dead were shot there), Brussels, Belgium, and the West African Republic of Ghana.
Disclaimer: We did not receive a screener or review request. We discovered the trailer and streamed it from Netflix on our own. That has no bearing on our review. And we truly enjoyed the movie, film noir detractors, be damned.