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TIFF: Knuckle City

“Welcome to Knuckle City. Where the boys are rough and tough and the girls are a knock-out.”

Dudu (Bongile Mantsai), aka the Night Rider, is aging out of his sport. He trains at the local boxing gym with much younger competitors and when its time to assign boxers to new matches, gym manager Bra Links (Owen Sejake) leaves him out. Dudu needs the boxing gig to keep him going emotionally and financially. He’s got several mouths to feed and a disabled mother (Faniswa Yisa) to care for. But in the highly corrupt world of “Knuckle City”, the name for the boxing community in Mdantsane Township in South Africa, he’ll have to partake in some dirty dealings to get back into the ring. 

Whether Dudu realizes it or not, he’s following closely in his father Art Nyakama (Zolisa Xaluva), the former boxing champ turned gangster who ran the gym where Dudu trains. Flashbacks show Dudu and his younger brother Duke (Thembikile Komani) and their difficult upbringing that turns tragic when Art is assassinated and Mother Hen is left a paraplegic. Dudu inherits his dad’s love for boxing and women and the motto that you’re not a true man if you don’t take care of your family. Duke has grown up to be a professional criminal and when he’s finally released from jail, Dudu seeks out Duke’s help to re-enter the world of boxing and for a chance at the highly coveted championship. This new partnership comes with incredibly high stakes putting everyone in Dudu’s life in grave danger.

Photo courtesy of TIFF

Director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s Knuckle City is absolutely riveting and just plain brutal. This film is gritty and intense and it grabs hold of you and doesn’t let go. The world of Knuckle City serves as a study of toxic masculinity. There is plenty of machismo however the women are not to be messed with. While they don’t match the men in screen time they do match them in strength of character. These women include Nosisi (Awethu Hleli), Dudu’s daughter who serves as caretaker for her younger siblings and grandmother and is having a romantic relationship with a thug from a particularly dangerous gang, Mother Hen (Faniswa Yisa) who survives an abusive marriage and an assassination and Ma Bokwana (Nomhle Nkonyeni), the counterpart to gangster kingpin Bra Prat (Patrick Ndlovu).

“Growing up in the township of Mdantsane in the 80s and 90s was an experience that has shaped the entirety of my life. The energy of the landscape and the visceral fight for survival that is palpable on the streets has inspired in me a deep yearning to chronicle the lives of its inhabitants through cinema… [Knuckle City] is an ode to my formative years and an exploration and fundamental dissection of the toxic masculinity that continues to purvey in this space.”

Jahmil X.T. Qubeka

Knuckle City is both boxing movie and family saga and Qubeka presents both in a balanced and compelling way. I was captivated by this film and its easily a new favorite for me. Mantsai is brilliant as Dudu and I loved the scenes between him and Duke played by Thembikile Komani. 

The actors speak a mix of Xhosa, a native Bantu language with a series of clicking consonants, English and what I believe might be Afrikaans. Xhosa is a fascinating language and I was particularly intrigued in how it fits in the social fabric of the local community. If you’re a fan of boxing films such as the Rocky and Creed series, Raging Bull, The Fighter and The Set-Up, Knuckle City is not one to miss.

Knuckle City had its international premiere at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival as part of their contemporary world cinema program.

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