Tragedy, Arthur Miller wrote seventy years ago, is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly.

Nigerian comedians who insist on acting careers might do well to learn a thing or two about acting from Siv Ngesi, the South African comedian who plays Goatee in Knuckle City, Jahmil Qubeka’s latest film.

Goatee is neither a joke nor a jokester (for a cartoonish Ngesi, see Bhai’s Café.). The role has absolutely nothing to do with Ngesi’s real-life occupation. Goatee is a menacing young boxer permanently primed to explode, and Ngesi embodies him perfectly. The air of menace Goatee exudes leaps at you from the screen.

But the centre stage in Knuckle City is Dudu Nyakama’s not Goatee’s. Played by Scandal’s Bongile Mantsai, Dudu is 37 years old, a boxer past his prime by implication and thus a bit of a nuisance. The Mdantsane Rocky has a slavish fixation on the limelight (as well as teenage girls). This is his rightful position. Having lost it, he will exhaust himself to attain it again.

There are, naturally, forces to contend with. Dudu cannot escape the burden of his infamous father’s influence, or the bleakness of everyday life in Mdantsane, the boxing-mad town where Qubeka sets this film. His crippled, hysterical mother is there, as is his happy-go-lucky jailbird of a brother, whose dalliances bring a reticent Dudu into the asteroid-strewn orbit of the overlords of the underworld, with predictable outcomes.

Knuckle City is Qubeka’s take on the boxing film. After Humbert and Geronimo, it his take on another classic American anti-hero: the old, flawed boxer. There are guns, naked women and bare-bottomed men. Qubeka’s fetishization of the teenage girl continues apace.

Tragedy, Arthur Miller wrote seventy years ago, is the consequence of a man’s total compulsion to evaluate himself justly. The tragic flaw, it followed, “is the inherent unwillingness to remain passive in the face of what he conceives to be his rightful status.” Qubeka flirts very briefly with this modern conception of tragedy but backs away.

Remarkably free of Qubeka’s usual extravagances and rendered in his preferred elliptical style, Knuckle City is not simply the story of Dudu’s triumph. It is also the story of the incredible resilience of the Nyakama family.

Banged this way and that in the aftermath of its patriarch’s fiery demise, Dudu’s travails and triumphs knits the family closer together—a deft scene at the end typifies this coherence.

Knuckle City is showing at the 2019 AFRIFF and is scheduled to screen on Wednesday, November 13th 2019.
Time: 8pm.
Filmhouse Landmark, screen 4.

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