TIFF Review: 'Knuckle City' Explores Masculinity From the Boxing Ring Directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka
Starring Bongile Mantsai, Thembekile Komani, Faniswa Yisa, Patrick Ndlovu, Siv Ngesi, Awethu Hleli, Owen Sejake, Angela Sithole, Zolisa Xaluva
Published Sep 05, 2019With a rich cinematic history of boxing films to draw from, writer and director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka pulls one of the most on-point references in his latest movie, Knuckle City, from a different genre entirely.
Visits to the gym, matches and discussions with promoters are all placed within the unique culture of the South African township where the film takes place, one hit by poverty and a fragile order, where the only redeeming force seems to be proselytizing Christians wandering about. Dudu (Bongile Mantsai) and his brother Duke (Thembekile Komani) travel other avenues of salvation or escape, the latter turning to crime. Freshly out of jail, he quotes Scarface to Dudu with a dose of irony: "The world is yours."
The foundation of Qubeka's well-observed drama stretch back to when the siblings are kids living with their father. The man chases women no matter how young, works around whatever laws he sees fit, and lives the life of a washed-up boxer for whatever fruits it provides.
Flash forward and the boys, now adults, can't escape his legacy. Dudu is at the end of his time as a viable fighter, a "37-year-old warhorse" as one promoter calls him. Without passion, he follows his father's path, working out in the same gym, pursuing any woman he sees in the streets that seemingly haven't changed with time. Duke doesn't have anything as noble as broken-down boxer in mind for his future. The minute he steps out of prison, he's back to the same habits that got him there in the first place.
Dudu knows how dire all of this is. He's being forced to pay a promoter for the opportunity to fight. He's got kids at home being looked after by his mother, including a daughter hanging out with a local tough. Dudu's struggling to feed his family and protect his brother, leading him and Duke to a find a small avenue to better their lives.
Dudu's point of view is key here, sometimes directly so. The movie even opens with his blurry vision, the camera shooting up from his spot lying on a stretcher. Knuckle City looks at how he would see this world, an environment of dark, night-time cityscapes, hazy days and dully-lit interiors with only glimmers of vibrancy or hope to be found.
Looking from his or any other perspective, there isn't a lot of interest to be found in the ring, an issue for a film that pegs so much on boxing. The matches we see are flat and without compelling arcs of their own.
The movie's far more interested and interesting with Dudu tracking how he got where he is. The through line from their father's attitudes and behaviours to how the brothers act as adults is established from the start. What grows with time is Dudu's introspection.
The form of the film, dipping into their childhood throughout, helps that project. A shooting, for example, is shown first largely from the outside in. Later on, the same recollection is returned to, this time with context that builds on Dudu's evolving understanding of his family history and implications for his outlook today. Mantsai's performance is also a great asset, showing up for the big exterior moments as well as the spots requiring a more thoughtful, considered quality.
The same nuance can't be offered to any of the women in the film, whether or not this is tied to the film's function. The brothers' mother doesn't show up in any of the flashbacks, as if to say she didn't impact their trajectory as individuals in any way like their father's model of masculinity did. Most every other woman is there to be pursued by men.
There's one woman in a position of power, a female fight promoter who, at one point, is approached by a man with a sentimental gift from their past. She shuts him down unequivocally. The man's injured pride and resulting rage is a picture in miniature of the system Knuckle City represents, of ideas of manhood lashing out and perpetuating themselves.