Riding with Sugar

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Charles Mnene in Riding with Sugar.
Charles Mnene in Riding with Sugar.
Photo: Netflix


4/5 Stars


As painful memories spin in his head, a young refugee pedals toward a new future under a charitable mentor, when fate challenges his BMX racing hopes.


Riding with Sugar is a refreshingly new take on an African story. Too many times, narratives coming out of the continent, or rather, about the continent, are steeped in stereotypes and cliches.

Written and directed by Sunu Gonera (PrideMadame Secretary, 13 Reasons Why) the film is bold, authentic and Afrofuturistic. Seventeen years in the making, the love and passion for this project oozes from the screen.

The story centres on Joshua (Charles Mnene), a refugee from Zimbabwe who wants to turn his life around by making it big on the BMXing scene. On the cusp of realising his dreams, he has a tragic accident. With his dreams shattered, he finds shelter and a mentor in Mambo (Hakeem Kae-Kazim), a fellow refugee who used to be a professor in his home country. But underneath Mambo's benevolence lurks a dark secret.

Being a coming-of-age story, it follows the tropes of the genre and explores Joshua's search for identity in a country that isn't welcoming to him, he deals with the loss of his parents and the post-traumatic stress it has caused, experiences first love and the loss of innocence when he learns more about Mambo.

The film is visually captivating. In his direction, Gonera has managed to make both the beautiful parts of Cape Town and the parts often not seen fuse together to tell the story. With vibrant colour, dance, music, and a novel approach to filming flashback scenes in a different tone and palette, it is a stimulating watch.

Riding with Sugar is quite a ride, and you can empathise with Joshua as he goes through the ups and downs of life mainly because of Charles Mnene's outstanding performance in portraying him. There is an earnestness in his acting that makes Joshua endearing to the viewer. In having seen Hakeem Kae-Kazim in several bad guy roles, I was on the edge of my seat, waiting for a "crack". If I had to add a label to this character, it would be that of an anti-hero. In revealing Mambo's layers, Kae-Kazim is captivating to watch. 

While the main themes of this film are inspirational and aspirational, it also speaks of the refugee experience in South Africa. And South Africans have a shameful history of xenophobic attacks on refugees in the country. There is a powerful scene in which the boys each declare their identity and that they too belong in this country.

Speaking about this scene in an interview with Channel24 Kae-Kazim said: "Mambo tries to let the kids say in that scene 'we belong'. We belong in the continent, so we are home."

In this sense Riding with Sugar is also a call for Africans to unite, to embrace our fellow Africans and to welcome them. We are all human and have the same hopes and dreams.

The film deeply moved me and while watching it I had a strong sense of pride, and hope. It's about time these types of stories about Africa gets told. If you're looking for something to watch this weekend, you won't go wrong by clicking on Riding with Sugar.



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