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Knuckle City: Black Male Lives are a Strange Matter

A still of Dudu (Bongile Mantsai)

by Vusumzi Nkomo

To liberate Black working class masculinity from decadence is not a favour, but a historical task.

Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s latest film opened recently in local cinemas around the country. The project is a moving vignette of Black township social life in South Africa. The film boasts of a gritty and crisp cinematography, bold characters, and a digestible narrative progression. South Africa’s first boxing feature film, Knuckle City is a critically acclaimed cinematic exploration of our ‘Boxing Mecca’s best export. East London’s Mdantsane, the second biggest township and large labour reservoir in the country, has produced an extraordinary constellation of pugilists whose names it would be criminal to omit in any conversation about boxing in South Africa.

The film mines this epic sporting heritage to tell a story of two brothers, Dudu Nyakama (Bongile Mantsai) and Duke Nyakama (Thembikile Komani), as they inherit and process the trauma of growing up in Mdantsane under the ‘wing’ of an aggressive hypermasculine father. The former boxing champion Art Nyakama (Zolisa Xaluva), whose parenting skills and archaic macho ethos drive them to the streets, where Duke finds crime and Dudu finds boxing. This evokes author Ntate Njabulo Ndebele’s remarks in his Behind sweaty windows, “boxing is a street sport in Mdantsane,” a communal culture and collective identity for working class Black men who inhabit these streets which are “a field we ploughed with no skills and resources.”

A still of Dudu's last fight.

Though the film is held together by the brothers’ mother, who is their and the film’s pillar, fittingly called ‘Mother Hen’ (Faniswa Yisa) by her delinquent posterity- a limping gangster and a decrepit “warhorse”. Yet, the film’s driving motif is the (seeming) homogeneity of working class male identities presented as Black masculinity, conveniently side-stepping the fact of Black males’ “decadence” (to bite David Marriot’s bling bling theory) as subjects languishing in the yoke of conquest. This motif is, however, grounded or rather undergirded by what Slovenian scholar Zizek calls “bourgeois liberal individualism”, a kind of ‘against the grain’, ‘against all odds’ triumphalism which has come to signify South Africa’s post-94 liberal project.

Boxing is a street sport in Mdantsane,” a communal culture and collective identity for working class Black men

Paired with this triumphalism is a pool of virtues of ‘hard work’, perseverance, determination, as necessary ingredients if one is to overcome the great structural impediments that haunt one of the world’s most unequal societies. I argue then that (1) this triumphalism is dangerous at best and, at worst, essential to the destruction of the Black male body; the bourgeois liberal enterprise is only possible if these bodies are subjected to and made to adhere to the logic of individualised ‘hard -work-translates-to-success’. But, by way of cultural theorist Jared Sexton, this ‘against-all-odds’’ liberal trope obscures global structures of violence predicated on the destruction of the working class Black man. And (2) the film falls short or rather not sufficiently imaginative at the level of suggesting what I will call an alternative ‘way of out’ for working class Black masculinities, or what Zizek refers to as a “positive vision”.

Born into it (decadence)?

Dudu and Duke, heirs to Daddy’s destructive deeds, inherit a great deal from Art: Duke, the recklessness and temperament, or “the Father’s law”, as Hortense J. Spillers puts it in her essay “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe”; Dudu, the recklessness and temperament, and the boxing. As Prof Ndebele says in his above mentioned text, they (Mdantsane boys) are “almost born into it”, the boxing, I mean. As “phobogenetic” objects, as Frantz Fanon suggests, Black men seem born doomed and their fates sealed because the status of toxicity is inherently inscribed in their bodies in the collective imaginary of civil society. So to suggest a ‘way out’ would entail entertaining the possibility of an actual ‘way out’, which no one really seems to desire, at least not the film.

How radically would the world change if there was a way out for Black masculinities?

Jahmil XT Qubeka behind the scenes of Sew The Winter To My Skin. Image courtesy of Yellowbone Entertainment

There is a hereditary relationship the brothers seem to have with the facticity of the worst Black masculine toxicity, a trait primarily, which is to say historically, and paradigmatically entangled with Black masculinity which the film purports to interrogate only to leave much to be desired. Theorist David Marriot argues that Black men have always been framed as “socially irresponsible”, an “affliction...associat[ed] with excess” and a certain kind of moral bankruptcy. Though the film leads us to believe that there is a ‘way out’ of structural (or racial) poverty (for Dudu, and by extension his entire family) if the boxer is made of the right stuff champions are made of, the film largely ignores the cumbersome task of charting a way out of/for toxic working class Black masculinities. Following such an inconsistency, it would be dishonest then to argue that this is not the priority of the film. After all, whose responsibility is it? How radically would the world change if there was a way out for Black masculinities? What sort of pleasure is derived from ‘locking’ working class Black men ‘in themselves’? Could it be the pleasure from the brute barbarism against Black male bodies which global cinema so desires and fetishizes?

Liberating Black masculinity

The lowest point of Qubeka’s film can be attributed to what Sexton, in “Black Men, Black Feminism: Lucifer’s Nocturne”, calls “preliminary matters of framing Black masculinities”. The film succeeds in impressively portraying male characters that are strikingly familiar to anyone who grew up in the township; the brazen, the brute, the streetsmart, the womanizer, trigger-happy ‘phara’. The trick lay in how best can a sports film, and a Boxing one, avoid regurgitating the stale thematic approach as far as the ideological foundation of the project is concerned and avoid as best as it could the ‘Rocky-isation’ of the narrative trajectory; from trash to triumph. And even more interestingly, how best can a film that seeks to probe Black masculinity imaginatively create an alternative cinematic template of the very same Black masculinity.

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