The movie Inxeba (The Wound) has spent the last year winning awards across the globe and stirring debate over its portrayal of a sacred Xhosa coming of age ritual. It is currently on circuit in South African cinemas where it's led to protest. Theatres have even cancelled screenings. But where are these protests coming from and what, exactly, are the issues involved?
There are two main criticisms. First, is its portrayal of a sacred Xhosa ritual. Inxeba tackles the issue of masculinity in both the mountain rituals and in society at large. Kwanda (Niza Jay), one of the initiates in the movie, who is queer and well-off, gets bullied and ostracized for being "too soft"—which means he's not man enough. His caretaker Xolani (Nakhane) and his colleague Vija (Bongile Ntsayi) are also gay, and have an illicit affair, that's thus kept secret. When they aren't fucking, Xolani gets bullied by Vija in public, probably to prove his masculinity to the rest of the men and the boys who are transitioning into manhood.
I'm not Xhosa, so I've never been to the mountain. But I've heard enough stories of violence and deaths during the initiation of Xhosa boys to conclude that things do go wrong up there sometimes. Which is not to say that initiation is a bad custom, but just like a lot of well-intentioned practices, initiation school has its own shortcomings.
Inxeba zooms in on one of them–the ill treatment some gay men go through during their initiation into manhood as a result of our archaic definition of manhood. Initiation is a sacred custom that, in an ideal world, should be kept secret, and the proceedings should only be known by those who've undergone it.
Xhosa men don't want to admit this truth.
We go entabeni to be taught violence and dehumanization of women
Soze bayithethe inyani
The first thing you or ordered when you leave there is to get a girl, sleep with her for nothing other than using her to cleanse yourself
— Texting (@TextingESET) 3 February 2018
*Homophobia is causing havoc. https://t.co/WDoDutzGwc
— Dr T (@drtlaleng) 3 February 2018
So many queer people have been killed with 'culture' being used as a mask to hide homophobia. You've been preserving your culture at the cost of others' lives. Choosing #Inxeba is resistance to all the assertions you've made to erase and murder queer people.
— Babes Womzabalazo (@NalediChirwa) 2 February 2018
The perceived disregard for this sacredness has caused a major outcry on social media from mostly Xhosa men, a majority of whom haven't watched the movie beyond the trailer.
I hope you're going to be boycotting Black Panther too since they're isiXhosa as the main language for a place that doesn't exist... https://t.co/ObMefQfxFC
— Babes WePetition (@Neli_Ngqulana) 4 February 2018
It has always bugged me how the rest of the cast of #Inxeba has kept quiet about the outrage the movie is getting. If like me, you've seen the movie, you might've noticed that it was a huge cast with many men, including old men. Why is it only the two gays getting death threats?
— uMthembu obhuzubhuzu 😍 (@Zukolate) 3 February 2018
I cringed at the movie's opening scene. Seeing old men touching the boys' private parts and asking them to declare, "Ndiyindoda!" (I'm a man!) felt a bit TMI. Again, I'm not Xhosa, so I'm not sure where the sacredness starts and ends, which means there might have been other sacred practices the movie exposes that I'm not aware of.
But according to Malusi Bengu, one of the co-writers of Inxeba, the movie doesn't reveal any initiation secrets. He told eNCA: "Inxeba is not about the secrecy of Xhosa initiation. Mandela already wrote more in his book Long Walk to Freedom, and no one has cared to divulge and no one reacted in this manner."
Even though I'm a heterosexual cisgender man, I have so-called feminine mannerisms, which I grew up being bullied for (it still gets brought up to this day). So watching how Kwanda was treated hit home, and I can only imagine the trauma of being in an entrapment where masculinity rules. Which is the core focus of the movie.
The second, more straightforward criticism of the film, and one that I agree with, is that once again a movie involving sensitive black customs and stories was directed by a white man—John Trengrove. This is common practice in all kinds of South African media and it's time it came to an end. The story is an important one, and the acting on the movie is great, but knowing the movie was directed by a white man doesn't sit well with me.
"Telling our stories through a white lens ensures the dominance and centrality of whiteness," wrote Lwando Xaso and Zukiswa Pikoli for IOL in a piece about why Trengrove had no right to tell a Xhosa story. "We don't know Trengrove or his reasons for making the movie and showing it to a foreign audience. What we do know is that he made a movie on Xhosa initiation that is off limits to him."
Cutting Edge had an episode titled A Man Who Is Not A Man, which featured men who went to initiation schools and came back with no penises, having been mutilated. It highlighted the secrets these men don't want to come out: senseless abuse, no proper hygiene, dehydration etc
— uMthembu obhuzubhuzu 😍 (@Zukolate) 3 February 2018
However, it must be noted that two of the writers–Thando Mgqolozana and Malusi Bengu–are black Xhosa men. The ills that happen in the mountain during initiation are a close subject to Mgqolozana's heart. His 2009 novel A Man Who's Not A Man is about a young boy whose manhood gets deformed after his caretaker—his grandfather—neglects him during initiation. He then faces the consequences of being a "failed" man.
Our world is changing, and our customs, if they are to survive, must start accommodating that change. Or run the risk of dying out. Still, these are problems that we must confront ourselves as black people. The era of the white savior should come to an end.