/ 25 February 2024

Red Ink: True crime television can teach

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Well red: Nqobile Nunu Khumalo plays the lead in the thriller TV series Red Ink. (Supplied)

Author Angela Makholwa has landed another milestone in her illustrious career. She produced and co-wrote the Showmax Original adaptation of her bestselling debut novel Red Ink

This follows the adaptation of Makholwa’s novel The 30th Candle into a Netflix series titled Love, Sex and 30 Candles last year.

The eight-part thriller series Red Ink tells the story of journalist-turned-publicist Lucy Khambule (played by Nqobile Nunu Khumalo), who is approached by an imprisoned serial killer Napoleon Dingiswayo (Bonko Khoza) to tell his story. 

“It feels affirming to have two of my works adapted for screenplay, especially having it happen successively,” says Mokholwa during our interview. “Readers often remark on how vivid my writing is; I think this is a testament to that particular quality in my writing.”

The initial idea of developing Red Ink into a TV series came through her company Britespark. She and her team pitched it to Showmax, which almost immediately commissioned it. 

There was, however, a need for a producing partner to give birth to the novel’s compelling characters and story on screen. 

“I felt that Bomb Productions, with its incredible knack for edgy, dynamic urban storytelling, would be a good fit for Red Ink’s unusual storyline.” 

Unlike Love, Sex and 30 Candles, Makholwa was greatly involved in the overall production process of the Red Ink series. 

“I worked with my co-producers at Bomb Productions to select the cast members for the show. 

“The process was quite rigorous, and we were exposed to some outstanding local talent.” 

She beams when talking about lead actress, South African Film & Television Awards nominee Nqobile Nunu Khumalo, who made a major impression on the production team. 

“I could instantly see the character of Lucy Khambule in her. 

“She has such a natural ability to embody the complexities of a character like Lucy because she is not afraid to project strength and dogged determination. Conversely, she easily slips into parts of herself that are fragile and vulnerable.” 

This grace and sensitivity can be seen in the characters Khumalo played on the soapies Scandal and The Herd

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Red Ink is based on the novel by Angela Makholwa, which highlights violence against women. (Supplied)

“It was very important to find a lead character that was not afraid to go where angels feared to tread because that is the essence of Lucy’s character,” says Makholwa. 

The all-star cast includes Tsholofelo Maseko, Kwenzo Ngcobo, Bongile Mantsai, Lorcia Cooper and Jo-Anne Reyneke. 

The works of many authors around the world get made into films and TV series. The adaptation of local novels has been slowly on the rise in recent years, especially with the emergence of streaming services. 

How significant are these initiatives to local authors and South Africa’s literary sector? 

It is a paradox because it appears to be thriving and struggling at the same time, says Makholwa. 

“We have more published writers than we’ve probably ever had in our literary history but we are competing with a wider plethora of entertainment avenues than ever before. 

“I think film, being such a visual and accessible medium, is the best platform to champion our works.” 

Serial killer-based TV productions, such as Reyka, Devil’s Peak, Killer Front Page and Devilsdorp, have simultaneously entertained and shocked audiences recently. 

Among Showmax’s new offerings is Catch Me a Killer, starring Charlotte Hope as Micki Pistorius, South Africa’s first serial-killer profiler. 

Also adapted from a book — Pistorius’s memoir — this true-crime series set in the mid-1990s traces her  quest, as a newly qualified forensic psychologist, to track down South Africa’s most feared killers. 

Such projects are filled with murder, violence and childhood trauma, with women mostly being the victims. 

Makholwa agrees that the themes in Red Ink are dark and can be triggering but they are a realistic interpretation of the country we live in. 

“Women in South Africa often have to live through unimaginable horrors, so it’s not a comfortable place to go to. 

“Acting out some of the scenes in the book was always going to be a challenge, especially for the female characters, so we deliberately took extra care to ensure we were not gratuitous in the depiction of the violation of females, because it is a jarring reality for most women in this country,” she says.

This was the topic, Makholwa adds, they debated the most, both as the production team and Showmax. 

The mass attraction to true-crime stories is another topic for debate and concern. 

Makholwa argues most human beings are decent and strive to do good, so we have a morbid fascination with those who choose to do that which goes against our instincts of showing kindness and compassion towards others. 

“It’s similar to our fascination with politicians, the obscenely rich, the narcissistic, the morbidly evil and the ruthless,” she says. 

“These figures will always be a source of interest for most ordinary people because those qualities are counter-intuitive to most people.” 

The violent culture that permeates many households and other everyday spaces in South Africa is unavoidable, though. So, do such crime stories on page and screen perhaps not perpetuate and promote toxicity and violence? What of the risk of unintended consequences? Instead of audiences finding edutainment value, some might pick up foul ideas of how to cause harm to others. 

Sadly, we choose to run away from addressing this issue, states Makholwa. She feels this avoidance has done us no favours as instances of violent crime seem to escalate and become more horrific. 

“I’m very aware crime is one of our nation’s greatest maladies; this is one of the reasons I choose to shine the spotlight on issues of femicide and gender-based violence because it is mostly women and children who are victims.” 

Through works like Red Ink, Makholwa hopes to open the space for conversations that can help us address the root of our misogyny. 

“I hope audiences will watch the series, not only as a form of entertainment, but as a tool to analyse, diagnose and engage critically about our traumas as a society and why they manifest in violent behaviours.”

Red Ink debuted on Showmax on 12 February, with new episodes on Tuesdays.