Bad Black: car chases, kung fu, vengeance, the plight of orphans in poverty and social injustice all rolled into one film

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Bad Black” (2016)

Despite the tiny budget – even less than its predecessor, “Who Killed Captain Alex?”, apparently being about US$85 – this film proves to be very well made with a complex story of two parallel sub-plots referring to social issues of importance to Ugandans (and, well, the rest of the world, come to think of it). Given that the cast consists of local people in director Nabwana’s impoverished community Wakaliga, a suburb of Kampala, the acting is very good and the child actors who appear are especially natural and very appealing. The cinematography is quite good as well, though with the camera being handheld and having to follow running people, it can be quite ragged. The film was developed as an acting vehicle for Nabwana’s US sponsor Alan Ssali Hofmanis who plays himself as a foreign medical professional helping families in Wakaliga.

The main sub-plot revolves around a girl called Bad Black (Gloria Nalwanga) who comes into the world under dramatic circumstances: her father Swaaz robs a bank to try to help his wife Flavia in labour and leads police on a wild car chase before defiantly going up in flames while machine-gunning everyone who tries to stop him. (Along the way Swaaz kills Captain Alex so we finally discover what happens to the police officer from the earlier film.) His sidekick manages to get the money to hospital but apparently not before Flavia dies. Flavia’s daughter is adopted by a family but when that family falls on hard times, the adoptive grandfather Hirigi turfs the girl out. The child falls in with a child gang led by a Fagin-like figure. Eventually the girl earns her nickname, Bad Black, by getting rid of that Svengali figure and becoming the leader of the gang. Years later, Bad Black plots vengeance against Hirigi for disowning her; for his part, Hirigi falls in love with her, marries her and hands over most of what he possesses to her. But Bad Black hasn’t quite finished with him yet.

Dr Ssali runs a makeshift clinic in the Wakaliga slum dispensing medication when Bad Black manages to get his business card, breaks into his home and steals his valuables, including some precious family dog-tags. Dr Ssali’s assistant, a nine-year-old boy called Wesley Snipes (!). teaches the doctor how to fight and defend himself with kung fu so he can get his dog-tags back. His training done, Dr Ssali hunts down Bad Black and her gang, at the same time that the police are hunting down Bad Black and Company as well to bust a drug-running scheme. Among Bad Black’s followers is Kenny, Hirigi’s son whom Dad (now a rich businessman) has recently disowned for making a ghetto woman pregnant.

Much of the story is very cleverly told so that what appears at times to be social commentary about daily life in Wakaliga, how hard it is for poor people to live from day to day, turns out to be part of quite an intricate plot. We do not learn of Swaaz’s connection to Bad Black until very late in the film after all the car chases, kung fu fighting, shooting, killing and the prison break-out have been done. Nabwana injects slapstick and sometimes very witty commentary into scenes that in other films would be treated very seriously. The importance of family, the consequences that occur when families are forcibly broken up and people make bad decisions, the heartbreak and tragedies suffered by children forced to grow up on the street and to join gangs, the trouble caused when people seek vengeance at any cost, the abuse of poor people by the selfish rich, the possibility of redemption – and, in the case of Dr Ssali, being true to your nature and not suppressing it – these are all themes that drive this film. Even the crazy car chases, the fighting, the machine-gun action and the constant obsession with Hollywood action-thriller actors like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude van Damme and others tell viewers something about life and the culture, how uncertain one’s path in life can be, of urban slum neighbourhoods in Kampala. Most of all, the black humour that exists as a survival mechanism and a way of bonding with others equally suffering from poverty and social injustice is part and parcel of the film thanks to narrator / voice joker VJ Emmie who not only interprets for the actors and describes the actions but also gets fully involved in the plot and cracks jokes, puns and witticisms (“This doctor needs borders!”) along the way.

The plot might not make complete sense and much of it is bat-shit bizarre with hilarious characters and many situations that Western viewers will feel should be treated seriously, based as they are in a context of official corruption and social injustice yet are pumped by Nabwana for their black comedy potential. Women crowded together in a shit-hole prison? – no problem, they are populated with outrageous characters like the Big Mama prisoner known as Supa Zilla. But no matter how silly and implausible the various plot-lines turn out to be with their laughable plot twists, “Bad Black” has charm, self-deprecating humour, the most hilarious special effects and Nabwana’s enthusiasm and passion for making films in and about his community that infects everyone who comes into contact with him and his work – and that includes those who watch his films.

Elite commandos, Tiger Mafia gangsters and Ugandan Shaolin Temple monks go head to head in “Who Killed Captain Alex?”

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Who Killed Captain Alex?” (2010)

Reputedly made on a budget of US$200 (though American-born Ugandan producer Alan Ssali Hofmanis admits the budget was actually US$85), this action-packed comedy of Uganda’s finest military commandos taking on the country’s most dangerous criminal organisation is a riveting work of amateur improvised film-making under conditions of poverty in a corrupt and authoritarian state. Captain Alex (William Kakule), one of the finest officers in the Uganda People’s Defence Force, sets out to destroy the evil Richard (Ernest Sseruyna) and his Tiger Mafia, which controls the slum neighbourhoods of Kampala, the Ugandan capital. After losing most of his commandos in a near-botched stealth operation on a group of Tiger Mafia drug couriers, Captain Alex manages to capture Richard’s brother and bring him to the police. On seeing the bad news on Ramon TV, the major TV channel in Wakaliga (a poor suburb on the outskirts of Kampala), Richard swears vengeance on Captain Alex and sends out a female spy to the military headquarters to seduce the officer and lure him to Richard. Alas and alack, Captain Alex ends up very dead in his tent – but no-one knows who killed him.

Alex’s brother Bruce U (Charles Bukenya), a Ugandan Shaolin monk, arrives in town, having heard of Alex’s death, swearing vengeance on Alex’s murderers. Bruce U has a few adventures in which he must do battle with the local Kampala kung fu squad and is nearly seduced by Ritah (Prossy Nakyambadde), one of Richard’s numerous and expendable wives. In the meantime, Richard is determined to find out who killed Captain Alex and hires Puffs (G Puffs), a mercenary from Russia, to steal a military helicopter and bomb Kampala for revenge. The Uganda People’s Defence Force also swear to avenge Captain Alex’s death by capturing Richard, though this means having to work out an ambush plan which clearly taxes their brains. They manage to work out where in Uganda Richard is likely to be hiding and start to encroach on him and his minions. Bruce U is captured by Richard’s men who bring him to their boss, who then forces Bruce U to fight Puffs’ assassins. Just as Bruce U succumbs to one flying kick, the commandos arrive and proceed to bomb the warehouse where Richard and his people are hiding. At the same time, Puffs’ destruction of Kampala creates breaking news on Ramon TV and forces the Ugandan government to declare martial law in Kampala.

When the dust eventually settles and the remaining commandos and mafiosi have to count the huge numbers of casualties, viewers are still no closer to discovering just who killed Captain Alex. At least the exuberant and histrionic acting, the crazed machine-gun shooting and the resulting mayhem, the kung fu fighting, and most of all the hilarious dialogue and narration by VJ Emmie (“What da fuck?!”) maintain the cheerfully frenetic pace in this devil-may-care, self-referential work. With respect to VJ Emmie’s voice-over narration and commentary, filled with jokes and openly exuberant as Emmie becomes absorbed in the plot and the action, there are very many highlights but the funniest of all must be the conversation over a woman early on in the bar-room scene: 1st man says, “Are you crazy? That is my wife! Get off my wife!” – to which 2nd man replies, “I thought [she] was a goat!” Another gem, this one from Emmie: “… All Ugandans know kung fu! …” One joke clearly meant for Ugandans involves a woman who is tortured because she insists on watching Nigerian movies.

Surprisingly for such a cheaply made and shot film with meagre resources, the plot is very involved and quite sophisticated in its own way, even though many details of the plot are full of holes, with a mystery that remains unsolved despite the body count and the destruction, and the ending remains open as the Ugandan government puts Kampala under lock-down while Puffs flies off in his stolen chopper into the sunset. The cinematography can be astonishingly good, especially in Bruce U’s training and fight scenes. The action is brisk and keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, expecting the … well, the unexpectable!

Part of the film’s charm is that the cast is drawn from local people in director IGG Nabwanza’s home community in Wakaliga, and all the props used in the film are local as well. The action takes place in and around Wakaliga. The special effects are really very good when one considers they were done on computers that Nabwanza himself put together out of salvaged scrap. The film is highly self-referential, as VJ Emmie constantly reminds the target Ugandan audience what it is they are watching, and this continual self-referral builds up the notion of an all-embracing universe called Wakaliwood, in which supa-killa elite commandos and supa-crazy Tiger Mafia killers fight as much for the fun of fighting as they do for control and dominance.

Attack on Nyege Nyege Island: mini action thriller short featuring killer King Kong kung-fu kicks

Isaac G G Nabwana, “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island” (2016)

The tiny but already globally famous Ugandan film industry (known as Ugawood, taking after the manner of Bollywood and Nollywood which represent the popular film industries of India and Nigeria respectively) already boasts its very own Quentin Tarantino cult figure in the person of one Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana, also known as Nabwana IGG, who since 2009 has been making comedy action thriller flicks on literal shoe-string budgets as low as US$200 (!!!) with cheap special effects which he knocks up on his computer, which he built himself out of scrap material in his impoverished neighbourhood Wakaliga, a suburb in Kampala, and featuring voice-over narration from so-called “voice jokers” who dub or translate the dialogue into English for audiences and who often add their own interpretations and jokes into the narration for hilarious effect. Beginning with his most famous film “Who killed Captain Alex?”, Nabwana’s films take place in a particular universe, of course familiar to us and yet an odd place where it seems blaxploitation and martial arts flicks common in the 1970s never went out of fashion, drug lords commanding mafia gangs and big bosses running worldwide trafficking rackets not only still exist but still wear the most god-awful flamboyant fashions, and fighters are as likely to send one another to overflowing morgues with well-aimed kung fu kicks as with AK-47s that they just can’t seem to control.

In case this all sounds too much for readers, Nabwana kindly provides a taster of his distinctive world with a 12-minute short “Attack on Nyege Nyege Island”, a film he improvised and made in two days during the Nyege Nyege Festival. The musicians and the audience at the festival, and the community who hosted it, make up the film’s entire cast. All you need to know is that the festival is gatecrashed by commandos from the fearsome Tiger Mafia gang – whose big boss wears an odd mask of three CD-ROM discs over his forehead and eyes – who proceed to shoot up everyone in sight in their quest to kidnap somebody called Anna whom their boss seems inordinately fond of. In desperation two girls in the Nyege Nyege community summon the spirit guardian, a human-sized King Kong figure who proceeds to knock out and knock off the Tiger Mafia gangsters with Killer Kung Fu fighting.

The acting is probably better than might be expected in a cheerfully cheap film such as this, and the special effects are actually on par with the famously legendary cheap special effects of the old original Doctor Who television series that ran from 1963 to 1989. Needless to say, the plot is almost non-existent and just when it almost runs out of juice, the film ends on a cliff-hanger that can only be resolved at the next Nyege Nyege Festival. The voice joker is as much an essential part of the action as he introduces characters and does not so much explain or narrate as push the story along with exhortations and hurrahs.

The remarkable thing is that this and other films by Nabwanza’s film production company Ramon Productions (named after his grandmothers) exist at all, with their breezy self-deprecating humour and fearless gung-ho DIY spirit, in the slums of Kampala.