Badman ("Bra Max") is a Sophiatown gangster who wants to be a Robin Hood. Unfortunately, his gang, “The Vipers,” wants to double-down on being a gang. This inevitably leads to conflict at a most inopportune time in Angus Gibson’s Back of the Moon, which screens virtually as part of the 2020 NY African Diaspora International Film Festival.
Badman is a gangster in the James Cagney-Angels with Dirty Faces tradition, who serves as the guardian of Kidonkey, a brainy orphan and generally tries to peacefully coexist with the Gerty Street neighborhood. Unfortunately, it is slated to be forcibly demolished by the Apartheid authorities, after this fateful night. Badman was already considering mounting a futile last stand against the cops, before “Ghost,” his chief rival and lieutenant in the Vipers started challenging his authority. Things come to a head when Ghost and his cronies abduct Eve Msomi, the vocalist at the Back of the Moon club.
Msomi is scheduled to leave South Africa for the London production of a jazz musical that sounds a lot like King Kong, the show that launched Miriam Makeba’s international career (which happened to be about an ill-fated boxer). Off stage, Msomi has been seeing “Strike,” an up-and-coming fighter, who frequently abuses her. Of course, saving the grateful Msomi from Ghost inevitably earns Badman Strike’s wrath as well.
Gibson (who co-directed the Jonathan Demme-produced, Oscar-nominated Mandela documentary) pulled off a Roger Corman-worthy feat when he successfully wrapped Moon using temp sets that had been constructed for a TV show his company was producing. They definitely look convincingly like 1950s back-alleys. The noir atmosphere is heavy and evocative. However, the limited locations make the film feel a bit stagey (but that’s not the end of the world).
In fact, Gibson’s intimate stage turns out to be an effective showcase for Richard Lukunku, who burns up the screen as Badman. He personifies “dangerous charisma.” Frankly, there are times he portrays the gangster with uncomfortable brutishness. Yet, he is also keenly seductive and sensitive in his scenes with Moneoa Moshesh (as Msomi). She is a fine torch singer, but Lukunku outshines her on-screen.
Despite some moments of raw brutality, Moon has an appealingly old-fashioned gangster vibe. Bogart and Cagney would understand the drama of Gerty Street, as well as the music they play at the Back of the Moon. Highly recommended for fans of noir crime genres, Back of the Moon screens virtually through Tuesday (12/8), as part of this year’s ADIFF.