This deserving film is the story of a young gang leader in contemporary Soweto, South Africa. Based on a 1983 novel by screenwriter and director Athol Fugard, it is told anew to a post-apartheid country and world in a gritty and captivating style by South African filmmaker Gavin Hood.
Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) and his posse are ruthless thieves and killers: Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), an amoral killer with no impulse control, Aap, (Kenneth Nkosi) Tostsi’s friend since their homeless childhood, and Boston (Mothusi Magano) an alcoholic who once studied to be a teacher. They take the train into Johannesburg and kill and rob a man on the way. That night Boston’s conscience bothers him; he gets drunk and accuses Tsotsi of lacking decency. He taunts Tsotsi for his name that only means “thug” and therefore a nobody. Tsotsi beats Boston with cold brutality.
Tsotsi goes alone into an upscale district one night and waits outside a gate for the owner to come home. He steals the woman’s car, Pumla (Nambitha Mpumlwana) is her name, and when she tries to stop him, he shoots her. Tsotsi can barely drive and crashes the car when he hears a baby cry. There, in the backseat is a beautiful three-month old child.
Tsotsi takes the baby back to the township and tries to care for him. When he cannot, he forces a lovely young widow, Miriam (Terry Pheto), with a baby of her own, to feed the child. Tsotsi threatens to kill her if she tells anyone. But it is too late. Pumla has wakened from her coma to give a description to the police – and Tsotsi has begun a journey to a difficult redemption.
In Tsotsi the camera is always looking for the young man’s face. At first cold, it morphs through a whole range of emotions beginning when he looks at the baby’s face. He remembers his mother’s slow dying of AIDS when he was a child, his father’s cruelty, and living homeless in unused cement sewage pipes stacked like an absurd apartment building. Boston’s rant about decency stays with him as he goes to search for money. He is about to kill again but stops in time; his thoughts pass across his face. We want him to say “thank you” to the Madonna-like Miriam and “I’m sorry” to Boston. His features show his ambivalence; he is not yet ready. Eventually, his face begins to soften as he admits his humanity to himself and accepts the kindness of a woman who sees through his hard shell to his soul. Tsotsi’s face tells the entire story.
His inability to drive is a strong metaphor for his life that is without guidance (or educational opportunities), and out of control so he keeps crashing.
Tsotsi is a very difficult film to watch because of the graphic violence. But Tsotsi is not about just one man; he and his gang are a microcosm of the larger society that still hasn’t caught up with the reality of what it says it is: a democracy that cares for its people. The larger, age-old, ingrained and institutionalized violence erupts through the marginalized, the poor, and the afflicted in hidden places even policemen cannot find.
Tsotsi, however, is not about blame; it is one man’s journey to decency, responsibility, restitution, redemption, and freedom. His story, his “thank you” and “I’m sorry” model the attitudes that can save us all. These words do not free an invisible government from its responsibility; instead they show that the innocence of a child can bring out the authentic humanity of a man who has been sinned against as much as he has sinned. If change is possible for one, it is for all.
Tsotsi is in theaters now.