‘Tsotsi’ Comes to Terms with Decency

‘Tsotsi’ is a film that will make you angry at the world for turning a blind eye to Africa. Set in Johannesburg, South Africa, ‘Tsotsi,’ which means ‘thug’ or ‘gangster’ in the South African ghettos, is essentially a coming-of-age journey that chronicles the life of Tsotsi (Presley Cheweneyagae), a 19-year-old brute with an unquenchable thirst for violence. We get a generous helping of Tsotsi’s decadence in the first few minutes of the film when he and his posse mug and murder a dignified elderly man on a crowded subway.
Disgusted with their most recent debauchery, the outspoken Boston (Mothusi Magano) chastises Tsotsi for not bearing any decency toward his victims and repeatedly asks Tsotsi to reveal his real name or at least something of his past. Tsotsi pays no attention to him at first, but Boston persists and explores the sensitive subject. Fed up with Boston’s interrogation, Tsotsi responds with an unscrupulous physical assault that leaves Boston with a horribly battered face.
Tsotsi flees the scene in fear of repercussion and in fear of his childhood. His past has left irreparable damage on his psyche and he has apparently never come to terms with this damage. Suddenly, he finds himself in a well-to-do neighborhood, where a BMW has just pulled up to a beautiful estate. The driver, a middle-aged woman, struggles to open the gate. Tsotsi sees this as an opportunity to steal the woman’s car and easily accomplishes the task by shooting the woman in the gut, which will ultimately leave her paralyzed from the waist down.
He haphazardly maneuvers the sleek car down the road until he realizes that the woman has left her baby in the back seat. Distracted by the baby’s incessant crying, Tsotsi barrels into a sign and totals the car. He attempts to leave the scene, but fetches the baby from the car before doing so. With the baby in a shopping bag, Tsotsi runs back to his shantytown with no plan of action regarding the care of his new baby.
The rest of the film follows Tsotsi as he attempts to live in seclusion with the baby, which ultimately allows him to confront his past and ponder the severed relationship with his family. Realizing that his loud Kwaito music and his makeshift newspaper diapers only irritate the child, Tsotsi confronts an amiable local woman named Miriam (Terry Pheto) and forces her to breast feed his baby at gun point. Tsotsi returns several nights later with the child and begins to develop a tentative relationship with Miriam, who offers to care for the child full-time. As the story progresses, Tsotsi reveals that there is a heart beneath his corrosive persona.
Writer and director Gavin Hood made many wise decisions in the production of this film, most notably his selection of acting talent. Presley Cheweneyagae demonstrates his raw acting ability with his portrayal of Tsotsi. He captures Tsotsi’s menacing demeanor and manifests his emotional core through punctuated facial expression. Tsotsi’s eyes are integral in his character development. At the beginning of the film, his eyes are those of focused determination. He is blind to everyone and to the moral fiber of the world. However, in the film’s final scene, his eyes are overcome with emotion. It’s as if he cannot stand to look at the world anymore; for the first time in a long time, he is aware of the decency that Boston spoke of earlier in the film.
The cinematography excellently renders the world of ‘Tsotsi.’. Instead of using the traditional gritty 16 mm film stock, Hood employed the usage of Super 35 mm in order to capture the intimate details of each scene as well as give the viewer a strong sense of the environment. The Super 35 mm film stock draws out the vibrant colors and makes them into characters. In Tsotsi’s shack, for instance, dark browns and black shadows dominate the scene, which complement his personality. On the other hand, Miriam’s home is quite different. It is illuminated in blue, green, red and yellow, all colors that highlight her amicable demeanor.
From the urbanized cityscape to the lowest of the low ghetto shanty towns, nearly every side of South Africa is portrayed. The widescreen aspect ratio (2:35:1) format places each character against the larger South African backdrop, so the viewer can be fully immersed into Tsotsi’s world. In one particularly moving scene, Tsotsi takes his child to the top of a hill, where both the shantytown and the city are prominently contrasted.
‘Tsotsi’ is ultimately a film adaptation of Athol Fugard’s renowned novel of the same name. While ‘Tsotsi’ was a moving experience on film, I believe that (although I am not entirely qualified to make this assumption as I have not personally read the novel) it would be more powerful as a novel than as a movie. Throughout the film, ‘Tsotsi’ does not have much dialogue. In the film’s final scene, Tsotsi’s articulate facial expressions do most of the talking. In the last five minutes of the film, Tsotsi only speaks a few sentences. On paper, however, the author could speak at length of Tsotsi’s inner dialogue and how it relates to each scene. If you are moved more by words than expression, then this film is not for you. However, for the rest of us, ‘Tsotsi’ is well worth the price of admission because it forces viewers supplant themselves from personal reality and to experience life as an impoverished South African coming to terms with the human experience.