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The Black Sea: SXSW Film Review

A man and a woman hug each other outdoors in the film The Black Sea

The Black Sea is surprisingly deep, occasionally humorous, and consistently heartfelt, featuring an excellent Derrick B. Harden as its central character.

Derrick B. Harden excels as the co-director and star of the narrative feature The Black Sea. It is a down to earth film about one man’s journey initiated by a mishap with a money opportunity on the Black Sea in Bulgaria. After traveling there from Brooklyn, Khalid (Derrick B. Harden) lives the daily life of a man displaced from his culture and community.

The Black Sea is a surprisingly heartfelt and personal film. It has a slow, almost aimless start, but then concludes with clear themes and strong character development. The film feels aimless in that much of its buildup follows a confused and lost Khalid who tries to make his way through unexpected events. It’s effective; it generates the same feeling for the viewer as Khalid. This eventually pays off well, as the film’s developments feel more monumental for both Khalid and viewers.

One of the foundational themes in The Black Sea is that even in an entirely new atmosphere, with a different language and way of life, people can connect with each other. Khalid struggles at first, being the only African American man in this vacation town, but finds he has more in common with residents than he would have thought. Particularly powerful moments occur between Khalid and his new friend Ina (Irmena Chichikova) over the food they make, the tea they drink, and the life experiences they share.

As a film about a man wandering in Bulgaria, The Black Sea features strong character development. It feels, at times, like a late-blooming coming of age story. Khalid knows life’s ups and downs, but as he navigates life in a strange place, he learns what it means to enjoy every moment, from simple meals to how to earn a living.

A man sits on the ground by the sunlight in the film The Black Sea
The Black Sea (Kotva Films / SXSW 2024)

Directors Crystal Moselle and Derrick B. Harden call the film “a tribute to those brave hearts who step into unknowns and come out the other side smiling with a sense of togetherness.” That tribute is very well executed: each scene portrays the sense that Khalid and Ina step into whatever they feel inspired to do. Whether they bond over hip-hop and open mic nights or go swimming in the Black Sea, their relationship is strengthened as they follow their desires and make their way.

Despite being a heartfelt story, the film includes some real stakes. It’s intense at times as Khalid attempts to fit in where he is unwelcome, and ultimately has to figure out how to get back to Brooklyn. Different moments such as the odd jobs he takes to make very little money and his connection with Ina eventually converge toward the end of the film to present tension and epiphany at once. The Black Sea invites people to live in the moment, embrace the difficulty of navigating life, and cherish the relationships made along the way.

The Black Sea is so relaxed in its cinematography, each scene feels as if the viewer is walking alongside Khalid, experiencing his life in real time. It barely feels scripted, which ultimately provides a natural and realistic feeling that many films lack. It brilliantly reinvents a rather cliché refrain: that you can lose your way and find yourself. Overall, The Black Sea is surprisingly deep, occasionally humorous, and consistently heartfelt. It’s a worthwhile watch for those dreamers and travelers at heart.

The Black Sea will be screened at SXSW on March 9-12, 2024. Read our SXSW reviews and our list of films to watch at SXSW 2024!

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