The last week of February in South African television and cinema have been among the most groundbreaking and exciting I’ve ever experienced. Netflix made history with the release of its first African script-to-screen series with the espionage filled Queen Sono whilst M-Net as a channel cemented itself as a platform for local scripted content with the release of its second drama in 6 months, Still Breathing. South African works are broadening in scale, scope and genre as more financial stakeholders make investment within our local productions, allowing our current auteurs a wider canvas to explore more of the rich stories we can tell. Knuckle City continues this streak as it transports us into the world of boxing for the first time within local cinema.
Knuckle City is centered around Dudu Nyakama, an aged and past-his-prime boxer trying to make ends meet in Mdantsane. Located within the Eastern Cape, Mdantsane is the birthplace and breeding ground of dozens of world champions and countless more national champions. Its continued legacy as a boxing stronghold and key point across decades has even earned the area the moniker of being South Africa’s boxing mecca. It is within this historical context that we’re thrown into the world of Knuckle City. It is also within this context that we’re introduced to our lead characters in brothers Dudu and Duke Nyakama, their relationship serves as the main component that propels this story. The film throws us into the 90’s, an adolescent Dudu unsuccessfully tries to stop the boisterous Duke from running bets at a street boxing match when Duke gets detained. Dudu runs to get his father Art Nyakama, famed boxer, to rescue Duke following which Art gives Dudu a speech on the importance of taking care of his family above all else. We’re then re-introduced to Dudu in the present as a respected and deft boxer that’s struggling to make a major fighting bill amongst his younger contemporaries. This struggle is further fractured by his need to support his family, which consists of his bed-bound mother and four childre. When Duke, now a resourceful career criminal, is released from jail, Dudu enlists Duke’s help to try and get him onto the bill to help support their family.
Written and directed by the Peabody-winning Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, Knuckle City offers a different take on the boxing film that is immersive, entertaining and sobering. It’s a subversive experience that often minimizes the glory aspects often attached to the boxing genre, and in its place explores more of the realities that surround boxing and the community built around it. Out of that subversion, comes an array of richly crafted nuanced characterizations that’s hard to anticipate and feels genuinely lived in. Most of the graphic depictions of violence occur outside of the controlled environment of the ring as opposed to inside it. Dudu is a second-generation champion boxer that is unable to rest on his laurels whilst Duke is proven to be more capable of a provider through his illicit dealings; both of them have incredibly flawed relationships with the women in their lives that can be tracked generationally. The violent and grey systems that govern the boxing world and Mdantsane as a community are pervading and don’t have easy fixes that are triumphant and/or stick. Essentially, Knuckle City subverts the standard conventions of a boxing film for a more slice-of-life experience set within the boxing world of Mdantsane.
Armed with a stellar cast of performances, breathtaking imagery and intentionally subversive storytelling, Knuckle City is an experience that truly extends the range of our local cinema, both by visual landscape and by genre. As we settle into a brand new decade, it’s incredible to see such visual statements extending the tone and direction with which South African cinema can grow into. There may be only three ways out of Knuckle City within the movie, but the body of work it and Yellowbone Entertainment encapsulates continues to increase the avenues that can allow great local work to get out.