Nakhane: ‘I came out three months before my first album’
Being openly gay has been a battle for the South African singer and actor, and his role in ‘The Wound’, about forbidden desires in the Xhosa tribe, is close to the bone
Nakhane stars as a closeted gay factory worker in John Trengove’s visceral coming-of-age drama 'The Wound'.
Nakhane cheerfully emerges from a London recording studio. Charming, articulate and witty, it’s difficult to reconcile the 30-year-old actor, musician and author with the thousands of death threats he has received on social media and elsewhere. “I wish you nothing bt badluck nakhane . . . i hope you die of aids . . . a slow nd painful death,” reads one. “Hang yourself or overdose. You won’t survive tomorrow,” reads another.
“I’ve never had any desire to go online and type something and make sure someone knew that I hated them,” says the South African star. “Who has energy for that? But you get used it, you know. Oh, here’s another one, and another one, and another one. Nothing’s shocking anymore. And you know, there’s so much to be afraid of in the world. I just think: I’ll deal with this stuff later.”
Nakhane has been openly gay since his early 20s, having spent much of his teens struggling to reconcile his Christianity and his sexual orientation. For a time he hoped to “heal” his homosexuality and he attempted to “pray the gay away”, a fruitless struggle chronicled on his two trailblazing albums, Brave Confusion (2013) and You Will Not Die (2018).
This character is exactly what I’m not in my waking life. On a subconscious level, it was quite detrimental to play him for about two months
“I came out three months before the first album,” he recalls. “That’s when I renounced my Christianity. So by the time I recorded the new album there were no boundaries on subject matter or certain words. I could write anything without fear of being found out by church members. I didn’t need to hide anymore. And that new freedom was extended into the music.”
The out and proud Nakhane makes for an interesting counterpoint to the character he plays in in The Wound, a film about closeted gay men in the Xhosa community. In it, Nakhane plays Xolani, a factory worker who joins other men from his community as they journey into a rural, mountainous area of the Eastern Cape to initiate a group of boys into manhood. Xolani is tasked with looking after a wealthy city teenager who soon discovers Xolani’s secret.
“I had to keep thinking back,” says Nakhane. “This character is exactly what I’m not in my waking life. On a subconscious level, it was quite detrimental to play him for about two months. It spilled over into my own life. He’s so bottled up. He’s simmering away like a pressure cooker, isn’t he?”
He laughs: “Afterwards, I had to boil; that was interesting.”
No film will make male viewers squirm quite like The Wound. Director John Trengove’s visceral coming-of-age drama plays out against Ukwaluka, a rite of passage for male Xhosa teens.
During the ritual the foreskin is removed and the initiate retreats to a hut where his wounds are tended to by an assigned caregiver. Ukwaluka is a controversial practise. At least 969 initiates have died from resulting complications since 2005; many more have suffered penile amputations. Campaigners, notably Desmond Tutu, have repeatedly urged Xhosa leaders to incorporate best medical practice into the ritual.
“We’re certainly not activists,” insists Trengove. “We’re not here to deliver any kind of message or to convince anybody of anything. That extends to the medical conditions of the ritual and the LGBT cause. For us, it was important to tell a story, to present a problem with a degree of complexity, without trying to force a resolution or to agitate for anything. We’re film-makers, not policy-makers.”
The Johannesburg-born Trengove, who is white, is understandably keen to stress the great measures taken throughout the production to ensure cultural sensitivity. He has become accustomed to charges of cultural appropriation, nonetheless.
“It’s a complex conversation because the film is largely made with Xhosa collaborators,” says Trengove, who co-adapted the screenplay from Thando Mgqolozana’s novel, A Man Who Is Not a Man. “My two co-writers are Xhosa men who have been through the initiation. Nakhane has been through the initiation. Our producer is a Xhosa man. Our entire cast is comprised of first-language Xhosa speakers who have been through the initiation. When I first read the book, I knew I couldn’t approach this material in a conventional way. I knew I was stepping onto a fraught discourse around cultural appropriation and that I had to be as conscientious as possible. At every step of the way, this was something created by a community of artists and filmmakers. The film itself is ultimately my response and my mark of respect.”
Not everyone was convinced. A day after the film was released, movie theatres across South Africa were picketed. The country’s largest chain of theatres pulled the film nationwide. Cinemas in the Eastern Cape province were forced to cancel screenings of the film and offer refunds because of protests, intimidation and vandalism. The Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) came out in support of the protests, saying the movie disrespected the Xhosa culture by depicting sacred customs.
“It didn’t take me by surprise,” says Nakhane. “But the extremity of the hostility took me by surprise. It was like a wildfire. I understand the panic. It’s complicated. People felt it was a part of their culture that was being exploited. But I don’t understand not wanting to know. I don’t understand the blind hatred.”
Much of that hatred is likely rooted in homophobia. Tellingly, other media, including Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom, have discussed Ukwaluka without attracting the ire levelled at The Wound. Last summer, the film, which was initially classified as 16LS (language and sex) by South Africa’s Film and Publication Board, was, at the behest of Contralesa and Christian organisations, reclassified as X18, a rating normally reserved for hardcore pornography. It’s a baffling decision against a same-sex drama that has repeatedly been compared to the Oscar-winning Moonlight.
“We knew absolutely that there would be a strong reaction to the film,” says Trengove. “But the X18 rating was completely unforeseen. It was an irrational decision that hasn’t really been properly explained. What I can say is that on the first day of the film’s theatrical release, there were some protests in different parts of the country. That led to legal action taken by various traditionalist groups petitioning the film and publications board. It then went to a tribunal committee who came up with this X18 rating. That was surprising to everybody, not just us. Even the film’s biggest critics were shocked. In a way, it did everybody a disservice because instead of engaging with the real issues and complexities of the film, suddenly we were all debating what constitutes pornography.
“Thankfully, the X18 rating was reversed and that allowed the film to go back to cinemas. Since then, there are still legal battles to have the rating restored to 16 which we believe is the correct rating. That’s ongoing. But an interesting consequence of the X18 rating was that a huge number of people who would not have otherwise heard of the film made a point of seeing it.”
The hostile reception afforded The Wound is a complicated business, notes the writer-director. “It’s a question that extends to the entire African continent,” says Trengove. “In recent years, the idea that homosexuality is un-African and that it threatens traditional culture has gained a certain amount of traction. But there’s a weird contradiction at play, because that view is rooted in Christianity and western religion and colonialism. Ironically, it was the European colonisers of Africa that first introduced the idea of punishment for homosexuality.”
I feel like a lot of people, not just LGBT people, but other outsiders, came together. This was a personal project for all of them
To date, The Wound has won 19 awards at 44 festivals around the world. Last January, it was shortlisted for an Academy Award in the Best Foreign Language Film Category.
“It’s been overwhelming,” says Trengove. “It was a very difficult film to make. And it deals with such a specific subculture – that specific intersection of same-sex desire and traditional culture – it was very difficult to imagine what the international response would be, if anything. We always wanted the film to make sense to an international audience. But the success has been astonishing. I feel like a lot of people, not just LGBT people, but other outsiders, came together. This was a personal project for all of them. And I think audiences are responding to that.”
“It happened so fast I had no time to be an egotistical asshole,” laughs Nakhane. “I still can’t believe it. It’s been interesting. South Africa and America, which have similar racial tensions and terror in their history, it’s been read in a political way. In Europe, the film has been read in a cultural or artistic way. For all the people saying ‘fuck you’, there were also a lot of people who showed their support.”
The Wound is on release