“Moffie” links white supremacy and homophobia as macho perversions

Hosted by

Oliver Hermanus, director of ‘MOFFIE.’ Photo courtesy of Daniel Rutland Manners. An IFC Films Release.

“Moffie,” a new South African movie billed as an apartheid-era “queer war film,” tells the story of the closeted 16-year-old Nicholas (Kai Luke Brummer) and his conscription into South Africa’s military service to fight a war against communist Angola in the 1980s. The film, in movie theaters and On Demand platforms, is based on André Carl van der Merwe’s autobiographical novel “Moffie”--a homophobic slur. It explores with great nuance the complex realities of apartheid-era South Africa and the dangerous ideologies pervasive in its solely white male armed forces. On this week’s installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” writer-director Oliver Hermanus talks to host Robert Scheer about the many threads his film captures as it takes us back to a time and place in which racism and homophobia were both extremely deadly. Setting up the main argument of the film as he saw it, Scheer explains how, in fact, both of these terrors have the same commingled roots.

“At first I thought [while watching ‘Moffie’], where are the Black people in this?” begins Scheer. “And then I realized the brilliance of this film is [that] this whiteness is not just an assault on Black people--I shouldn't just say ‘not just’--or people of color, or poorer people, or it's not just a disguise for imperialism, but in fact, it actually represents an ideology of masculinity, of purity, which we saw in Nazi Germany, but actually reached its most respectable point in the South African experience.”

Hermanus agrees that the global politics at play in Africa are critical to understanding the context of “Moffie.”
“What was interesting to me in researching the story was that [these] white teenagers were being pulled systematically into the military [and] immediately trained to see the Black Communists--which in Afrikaans were referred to as the Swart Gevaar, which means the Black Danger--as the big threat that they were being exposed to. The big propaganda [that] was being sold to them was that [...] there was this communist Black threat, and if we did not defend our border, if we did not actively fight them as white men, as this militant group of white men who were the owners of South Africa, that it would be the end of their way of life.

“They were being told that they were fighting a war, not only against an enemy [that] was in danger of taking over their country, but more so inflicting their country with communist ideas,” adds Hermanus. “Of course apartheid as a system was always [based on the] marriage of state and church. It was the Dutch Reform Church that was the [sort of] colonist backbone of the apartheid system [and also] trickled into the homes of white South Africa.”

Hermanus, who has directed several other critically acclaimed films including “Beauty (Skoonheid)” (2011), and “The Endless River” (2015), explains how this combination of ideologies created a “social order” in South Africa in which the white man was at the very top and the Black woman at the very bottom--a system, Scheer points out, not unlike the segregation that the U.S. had institutionalized at home long before it finally condemned South African apartheid. The writer-director also opens up about what his mixed-race family lineage says about the history of South Africa and unravels the significance of the word “moffie” to his film and more generally to 1980s South Africa.

“This world that ‘Moffie’ explores is the factory where these men were being made and being fashioned,” says the writer-director. “ I wanted to explore what that was like. And the backbone of that was this word moffie. Moffie being this word that is used as a negative; it is the weapon of shame that is used as the sort of outline of what you should not be. The word gets used to kind of define the limitations of masculinity. If you are described or referred to as a moffie, at the time, it didn't really mean that you were gay; it was more so that you were lacking in the masculine qualities that the perfect Afrikaner or white South African man needed to embody as a soldier, and as a leader, as a representative of that superior race, as it was seen at the time.

“So this really was the machine, the war machine that wasn't just building soldiers, but it was building men,” he concludes.

Listen to the full discussion between Hermanus and Scheer as the two grapple with the urgent issues at play in “Moffie” and examine the shared histories between the U.S. and South Africa of white supremacist toxic masculinity that has plagued the entire world.



Joshua Scheer