Sophiatown was legendary, a hub for black arts and culture, most notably politics, jazz and blues during the 1940s and 1950s. While it produced some of South Africa’s most famous cultural and political icons, it was scattered under apartheid. The politically-loaded Sophiatown of 1958 is the backdrop for crime drama, Back of the Moon, as police were starting widespread evictions. Focusing on “Badman”, an intellectual who chose a life of gangsterism over becoming a lawyer or doctor, we venture into the dizzying highs and lows of one fateful night.
Written and directed by Oscar-nominated documentarian, Angus Gibson, Back of the Moon is an old Hollywood style gangster movie with a modern appetite for violence and shock value. Literally dressed to kill, the old world production design and wardrobe takes you back to the bustle of Sophiatown in the late ’50s. While the characters look the part, this isn’t the playground of James Cagney, who rattled off priceless gangster quips as readily as a Tommy gun. Instead, it’s a much grittier and more dangerous place where guns were scarce and flick knives were the currency of street crime.
Gangster kingpin “Badman” heads up the powerful Vipers gang, a crew of thugs whose sporadic crimes seem to happen on a whim. Exacting in-house justice on those who step out of line, Badman’s unconventional style, smarts and brute size keep him in charge. Richard Lukunku is a fine actor, who isn’t afraid to play villains, taking on a more complex role in Back of the Moon. He has star quality, throwing himself into the role of “Bra Max” as we discover a man whose empire is crumbling underfoot. Lukunku is supported by some of South Africa’s most promising acting talents with Lemogang Tsipa as Ghost, S’dumo Mtshali as Strike, Thomas Gumede as NAT and singer Moneoa Moshesh as Eve. Tsipa snakes in and out of the shadows, Mtshali is testosterone personified, Moshesh is a sultry diva and Gumede is both excitable bystander and narrator.
“…I’m ready for my close-up.”
Back of the Moon is anchored by its stylish treatment and fine ensemble. The array of performances is impressive, showcasing South Africa’s depth of acting talent and filling the screen. Hinging on a primary location and up close drama, you could easily see Back of the Moon as an intense and memorable stage play. While a bit slow-moving and claustrophobic, it’s a noble and handsome gangster drama and its South African roots keep things fresh as we delve into another world and time. From the outset, it’s a struggle to connect with the lead characters, who are entrenched in the often vicious, ugly and fearless life of gangsterism. While it’s a challenge to find a hero to truly get behind, Back of the Moon does enough to be engaging and mostly compelling if decidedly unlovable.
It’s an intense and moody portrait of an intellectual man’s crumbling criminal empire, which while distinguished in appearance and execution, is not for sensitive viewers. Wielding powerful themes and fearlessly pushing boundaries, especially against the misnomer of the “dignified” ’50s, Back of the Moon has got clout and doesn’t shy away from its inherent ugliness even if it means sacrificing some entertainment value in the process. Purposefully challenging, it’s a commendable and bold crime drama that demonstrates just how much potential our country has for classic genre films.
The bottom line: Seething