Michelle Galloway

Academic Gibson Ncube considers two South African films, Skoonheid and Inxeba, to study how the films present male protagonists who negotiate their sexuality in conservative societies.

Two South African films Skoonheid and Inxeba, despite their diametrically opposed socio-racial contexts, broach violent and toxic queer masculinities, according to Gibson Ncube, an academic in the Department of Foreign Languages and Literature at the University of Zimbabwe and a fellow at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study. Ncube argues that the films present male protagonists who negotiate their sexuality in very conservative societies, Afrikaner in the case of Skoonheid and Xhosa in Inxeba.

Ncube presented a comparative analysis of the two films which will form part of a larger book project in which he will examine the production and use of queer African bodies in film and the intersection of race, gender and sexuality.

“The body is a text embedded with codes and meanings,” said Ncube. “This study sets out to go beyond the analysis of screen texts by focusing on the screened queer bodies as living texts that have the potential to articulate narratives normally sidelined by mainstream [media].”

A violent society

South Africa offers a particularly fascinating setting because of its history. Ncube says that the violence of colonialism and apartheid created a particular context for violence in South Africa and even though it should have ended with the birth of democracy in 1994, interpersonal and gender-based violence have continued well into the democratic era.

“There is almost a ritualisation of violence in post-apartheid South Africa, this violence transcends gender, race and class [and] there has almost been a Hollywood-type glamorisation of such violence,” said Ncube.

According to feminist author and Dean of Research at University of Fort Hare, Pumla Dineo Gqola among others, this violence has been depicted as “natural” and “acceptable”.

Ncube’s particular interest is in understanding whether violence by queer masculine bodies can be understood using the same vocabulary and grammar as that used to understand the violence of so-called ‘normative’ bodies.

“Although the two films studied depict diametrically opposite socio-economic situations they both encompass hetero-normative scripts of violence,” he says.

Skoonheid [Beauty], which was released in 2011, received five Cannes nominations and won the Queer Palm Award. “[The film] depicts hegemonic Afrikaner masculinity, patriarchy, the subordination of women, and characters dominated by outdated ideas of religion and nationalism,” said Ncube. “The protagonist, stripped of his previous power, is disillusioned and subject to internal conflict. He has a public image of heterosexuality while his homosexuality is acted out secretly and not recognised as part of his identity. His failure to reconcile these two worlds leads to outbursts of violence.”

Inxeba – The Wound, released in 2017, depicts different versions of masculinity through its male protagonists – hyper–virility, violence and sexual prowess, marginal and fragile masculinity with a fear of being outed and acceptance. The film centres on Xolani, a lonely factory worker, who joins the men of his community in the mountains of the Eastern Cape to initiate a group of teenage boys into manhood, his life begins to unravel when one of the young initiates learns that he is gay.

“The violent outbursts of the queer protagonists in both films point towards a poetics of violence embedded in internalised homophobia, we need to ask why violence is a viable avenue to channel shame and homophobia,” he said.

Public reactions to the films also tell a lot about attitudes towards these issues. Inxeba faced violent protests when it was released, which led to its rating being changed to X – equivalent to porn. “Ironically it was circulated at the same time as the second film in the 50 Shades of Grey series was showing,” said Ncube.

Ncube pointed out though that the public outcry was not about homosexuality but about the depiction of a traditional space which is usually only open to men. “Most of the demonstrations happened during the first screening,” he said. “So they were probably a reaction to the trailer. They mainly came from Xhosa men in the Eastern Cape who believed the traditional initiation ceremony should be protected.”

Ncube says that even though there was pushback, both films were well received by the gay community. They were seen as “breaking the silence” and challenging perceptions of queerness, demonstrating that the struggles and violence faced by gay people are the same as for others. Inxeba, in particular, was praised for its daringness in approaching homosexuality in a traditional setting.

“I think the films assist in deconstructing gender stereotypes and offer different but compelling ways of thinking about gender and identity,” he said. These are among the issues which Ncube will unpack in much greater detail as the project progresses.