The Movie Waffler SXSW 2024 Review - THE BLACK SEA | The Movie Waffler

SXSW 2024 Review - THE BLACK SEA

The Black Sea review
A Brooklyn barista finds his place in the world when he becomes stuck in a Bulgarian coastal town.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Derrick B. Harden, Crystal Moselle

Starring: Derrick B. Harden, Irmena Chichikova, Stoyo Mirkov, Samuel Finzi

Crystal Moselle and Derrick B. Harden's The Black Sea is something of a cousin of Valeska Grisebach's acclaimed 2018 film Western, in that it's about a foreigner who finds unlikely kinship in small town Bulgaria. Moselle and Harden opt for a much looser storytelling structure however, and the result is a film that feels like we're hanging out with friends and affable strangers in a sunny locale for 90 minutes.

Along with co-directing, musician/rapper Harden plays the lead role of Khalid, who quits his job as a Brooklyn barista and flies to the Bulgarian coastal town of Sozopol, where an elderly woman has promised him a cash sum in exchange for what he mistakes as sexual favours. Unlike the viewer, Khalid is unaware of the film's prologue, in which the woman is told by a fortune teller that she is terminally ill and can only be healed by the touch of a black man. With no black men to be found in Sozopol, the woman puts a presumably poorly worded ad on Facebook, but when Khalid arrives she has just passed away, leaving him out of pocket.

The Black Sea review

After spending the night sleeping in a docked boat, Khalid awakes to find his bag and passport have been stolen. Wandering back into the centre of town he comes across Ina (Irmena Chichikova), who runs a makeshift travel agency from a hole in the wall. Without a passport she can't help Khalid get home, but she puts him in touch with the local big man in town, Georgi (Stoyo Mirkov), who sets him up with an exploitative job cleaning boats for a payday that keeps being put off.

Khalid also finds that he's expected to act as a gigolo, entertaining the elderly female tourists who party on Georgi's boats. Khalid storms off and is taken in by Ina, who allows him to sleep on a mattress in the back of her makeshift office. Introduced to the local delicacy of "prinzesi" (essentially cheese on toast), Khalid is reminded of the hardship of a youth spent eating grilled cheese sandwiches. Displaying a knack for making the toast, along with cups of "matcha" tea, Khalid opens a café outside Ina's office. His enterprise becomes an instant hit with locals and tourists alike, as do the open mic nights he hosts. This makes him an enemy of Georgi, who owns Ina's property, and seems to believe he has similar proprietorship over Ina herself.

The Black Sea review

The Black Sea requires a certain degree of suspension of disbelief regarding its initial setup. The idea that a woman seeking a black man anywhere in modern Europe would have to reach out to America is patently ridiculous, especially in a coastal Balkan town with its mix of tourists and migrants. But Khalid stands out from the African black men you might find in an Eastern European coastal town, in that he's distinctly American. Khalid's larger than life persona and entrepreneurial spirit could only be the product of the New World. Dismissed at home as a layabout, Khalid displays an American work ethic that knocks the lackadaisical Bulgarian natives for six. As Khalid rushes around in his new role of a man of business, Ina looks positively drained by his presence. "You did all this in three weeks?" a bemused local asks Khalid upon observing the business he's built so rapidly.

The Black Sea explores the odd irony of how we so often feel more relaxed in foreign surrounds. With strangers we can reinvent ourselves and expand our possibilities. Make a mistake at home and it can define you for the rest of your life, but on foreign soil where nobody knows your backstory you can make a fresh start. "Back home I could never open a café because they're all run by foreigners," Khalid notes, "Now I'm a foreigner and I'm running a café."

Aside from a basic narrative, most of The Black Sea is improvised, with Harden and Moselle capturing genuine reactions to the former from the people he meets on the street. Unlike the misanthropic work of Sacha Baron Cohen, there's never a sense that Harden and Moselle are hoping to entrap unsuspecting Bulgarians into displaying racist behaviour on camera. Everyone Harden meets treats him like a brother in the familial rather than racial sense, and the worst we hear from the locals' lips are ignorant but well-intended comparisons to rappers and basketball players. As he did in his real life trips to Bulgaria, Harden discovers the Bulgarians have a love of hip hop music, which only endears him further to their sensibilities.

The Black Sea review

The Black Sea also highlights how sometimes it takes foreign eyes to point out how good we have it. Wandering around Sozopol, Harden is constantly taken aback by the natural and historical wonders he happens across, which are dismissed by Ina, who takes her surrounds for granted.

Harden and Chichikova make for an endearing odd couple, and the improvisational nature of the film allows for some great natural comedy as they mutually react to encountering cultural differences in real time. Their relationship is refreshingly platonic, though there is a sense that it could develop into something else beyond the end credits. Hanging out with this brash American and stoic Bulgarian is an easygoing joy, and like the best trips abroad, you'll be disappointed when the credits roll and it's time to go home.

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