An action movie star has his life fall apart around him after being targeted by cybercriminals in Obi Emelonye’s Black Mail.
Those old enough to remember will recall that in the early days of the internet the groundbreaking global network was perceived as the zenith of human communications advancement and came with the promise of opening up the world to those previously denied it. However, it also opened up a vast avenue of methods for criminals to exploit the newly forged international access, and those tasked with maintaining its security have been playing catch-up ever since.
Our protagonist Chinda (O.C. Ukeje) is a successful actor with a struggling marriage, missing appointments with a counsellor and remaining distant from his lawyer wife Nikki (Julia Holden). Despite having found success in a field many people would envy, he very much convinces as an everyman and someone to empathise with as his personal problems could affect any one of us. Such is the gulf that has grown between him and Nikki you get the impression they would have long separated were it not for their two young daughters, issues only compounded upon when he is duped by a scam email and what little control he has over his life life begins to crumble, becoming terrified that if his secrets are revealed it would be the end of their union. When you can’t feel safe in your most private moments and are forced to second-guess every decision you make, the stress and paranoia it induces can become a physical thing that consumes your very life, reducing it to little more than dread of every communication that might be from those exploiting your secrets.
Running the criminal operation is a band of Russian gangsters, principally Igor (Nikolay Shulik), an unpleasant and ruthless individual also overseeing a group of trafficked Belarusian women forced to work as prostitutes. To be honest, the original blackmail email Chinda receives makes such generic threats it should have been straightforward to recognise it as a fishing expedition, and that only by engaging would the claims be confirmed and proof of them subsequently be gathered. However, it demonstrates how in a moment of panic the blanks could be filled in with details of your hidden shames, and that one misstep affords criminals control over making your life a miserable hell unless you comply.
The characterisation takes an unusual direction with Igor, taking time to shown he is desperately attempting to raise money to fund his infant daughter’s expensive medical procedure, which certainly makes you empathise with his situation even while condemning the manner in which he’s dealing with it. However, it also shows us his cruelty towards the women in his charge, specifically Ivana (Natalia N), whose life is even more controlled by him than Chinda’s, but instead of cryptocurrency transfers her debt is extracted with forced servitude, sexual abuse, and threats of sending her mother videos of the things she’s been made to do. It emphasises that organised crime can often be a chain of misery where each link consists of somebody ultimately in thrall to someone else higher up, but it’s an odd perspective to grant extra focus and distracts from the point it’s trying to make.
The time spent on it also takes away from the development of other characters such as Ivana herself, who we learn precious little else about, and Reuben (Alessandro Babalola), Chinda’s manager and Nikki’s cousin whose tech expertise aids Chinda in understanding how thoroughly he’s screwed himself through his mistakes. It’s frustrating to watch Chinda make simple errors in safeguarding his online activity even after it’s been compromised, but it serves to demonstrate just how little it takes for people to leave themselves vulnerable to such an attack, and that a lack of understanding of how such errors can be exploited does not mean they aren’t very real and valid.
Although movies set in London are certainly nothing new, this one has a distinction of being set in the less recognisable, salubrious and tourist-friendly areas of the city that visiting productions typically ignore, cloaking the metropolis in a veneer of anonymity that further emphasises how unimportant is specific geographical location in matters of digital crime. On this topic, there isn’t any acknowledgment of just how unlikely it is for Chinda’s blackmailers to happen to be operating out of the same city as him and not, say, a flat in Seoul, a rented office in Stockholm or a garage in Berlin. However, it affords proceedings a localised intimacy, as well as allowing for the narrative to have a resolution Chinda can be personally involved in, neatly tying things together in a finale exuding an energy largely absent from much of the rest of the film, which seems to plod along as though uncaring of its protagonist’s escalating despair.
Black Mail is a thoughtful examination of the ramifications of the omnipresence of social media and the law’s inability to keep up with the myriad ways digital technology can be exploited by cyber criminals, as well as a demonstration of the lengths to which desperate people will go to protect those they love.
While not exciting or tense enough to truly be the thriller it’s classified as, Black Mail is nevertheless an engaging exploration into how pervasive is cybercrime in the modern day, how easily it can be deployed on the unsuspecting, and how quickly it can destroy its victims’ lives.
- Chinda’s relatability
- the notion that the events could happen to anyone
- the demonstration of how little it requires to be taken in by scams
- the themes of desperation and forgiveness
- excellent use of the setting
- the slow pacing
- the jarring sides of Igor’s intended moral ambiguity
- the frustration of Chinda not taking basic online safety precautions
- lack of development of supporting characters
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