Film Critic: Stephen ‘Spling’ Aspeling
Knuckle City is from writer-director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, the creative force behind Sew the Winter to My Skin, Of Good Report and the series Blood Psalms. This is a personal film for Qubeka, taking place in his hometown in East London, South Africa. Mdantsane is known for developing some of the greatest boxing champions in the country, a tough neighbourhood has seen some of the best pugilists emerge over the years. Tracking one such fighter and his rite of passage, the boxing hub serves as a character in Knuckle City.
The crime drama and sports thriller focusses on an aging, womanizing professional boxer and his career-criminal brother who take one last shot at success. Grappling with the day-to-day struggles and the city’s cutthroat boxing circuit, Qubeka’s film captures the scrappy, violent and streetwise atmosphere. Dark, violent, gritty and bold, once Knuckle City takes a bite it never lets go. This is a visceral, intense and relentless drama that uncovers the lives of two brothers who find themselves adopting typical life narratives in the East London town.
This driving film stars Bongile Mantsai, Thembikile Komani and Owen Sejake. A strong ensemble effort with many full tilt and exciting performances underscored by Siv Ngesi’s take on the pent-up ball of energy that is Goatee, it’s an entertaining, furious and edgy undertaking. Mantsai and Komani have livewire chemistry as brothers, Dudu and Duke Nkayama, serving as figureheads for the town’s fork-in-the-road notoriety for offering a distinct choice between boxing and crime. Sejake’s experience shines through, offering an immense and anchoring performance as Bra Links.
Qubeka re-teams with Layla Swart once again to effect Knuckle City’s full-charged visual aesthetic with panache. Sharp editing, breathtaking cinematography and a defiant spirit drives this in-your-face coming-of-age boxing crime drama thriller. Moving at breakneck speed and carrying great intensity to make it entertaining and even overwhelming at times, there’s never a dull moment as the air of imminent danger lingers in every scene.
Knuckle City has been criticised for its display of toxic masculinity, which may be unintentionally glorified on screen. The concept of leaving Mdantsane in boxing gloves or a coffin translates effectively enough to temper this critcism but the coolness factor still obfuscates matters. The testosterone-fuelled saga may not do itself any favours in terms of its aggressive, pumped up approach, but it remains distinctive and singular. Whatever your reservations or feelings, there’s no denying Qubeka’s talent and vision in this gut-busting and intense boxing film.
This Knuckle City review was first published at SPL!NG.