Set in Mdantsane, South Africa, Knuckle City is a gritty look at the boxing world — of those who fight in it, and those who invest in it. Anchored by a fantastic lead performance by Bongile Mantsai, as well as an impressive supporting cast, Jahmil X.T. Qubeka’s latest film brings an intense heartache to its slick exploration of family in a poverty-stricken village. Following a boxer who never got his shot at being a champion because his brother’s life of crime put him in a neverending series of unfortunate events, Qubeka digs deeper into a world thrown to the wolves, where the carcasses of dreams are the most nourishing to devour.
Beginning in 1994 and subsequently cutting back and forth between then and the present day, Knuckle City immediately highlights the relationship — or lack thereof — between Dudu (Mantsai), Duke (Thembekile Komani), and their boxing champion father, Art (Zolisa Xaluva). The film also shines a light on the importance placed on being a boxer in Mdantsane; it’s not just a job — it’s almost the equivalent of being a God, if you can maneuver through the business model in place and take the championship title. That means taking a hit when you need to take a hit, and learning quickly that just because you’re a good boxer doesn’t necessarily mean you can be champion. While that sounds terrible, it isn’t far off from other business models in place where the sport can often be just as much about entertainment as it is about pure skill.
That rule of falling into place when necessary is ultimately what keeps Duke and Dudu thematically tied to each other. While Dudu comes off as the responsible brother, he is also full of himself in much the same way that Duke is after being let out of prison. However, the difference is that Duke isn’t seen as much of a letdown by his peers and family; in this world and any other, success is not measured by your morals or your dreams — it’s measured by your wealth and connections. That wealth stems from having ambition, but also knowing its ceiling. Knuckle City lands its gut punch because it portrays a life where the career path to being successful only comes from indulging in criminal activities and immoral behaviour.
It’s the grittiness with which the film is shot, as well as some of the big moments, that accentuate a world gone to Hell. That world is all the more heartbreaking to witness when taking into account that it’s not an outlier; plenty of people live in similar circumstances where they are pushed into crime to make ends meet. Knuckle City often meanders and touches on the same touchstones throughout, but further pushing the notion that some people simply don’t get a shot at being great on their own terms. However, this is tediously pointed out in far-too-obvious ways, and by the end of the film it’s completely driven into the ground. That being said, perhaps Qubeka brings the pain to the forefront so obviously because it’s a point worth bringing to mind whenever possible.
Knuckle City is a distinct movie, even if it also treads similar narrative tropes that are often associated with this kind of story. The broad strokes play out in a typical fashion, but are distinguished because of how violently or strikingly they are presented. Arguments escalate and fights explode with little provocation needed, and that intensity continues inside and outside the ring. The boxing itself is shot very well, and carries a huge momentum to it, but also doesn’t detract from a main narrative which takes place outside those four corners. An intimate movie, Knuckle City gives the world we live in a few jabs before putting an entire system of corruption and limitations on blast. It’s a necessary blow that doesn’t quite land the knockout, but doesn’t sidestep around the issues at hand.
The Toronto International Film Festival runs September 5 – September 15