Presley Chweneyagae as Tsotsi
Mothusi Magano as Boston
Israel Makoe as Tsotsi’s father
Percy Matsemela as Sergeant Zuma
Jerry Mofokeng as Morris
Benny Moshe as Young Tsotsi
Nambitha Mpumlwana as Pumla Dube
Zenzo Ngqobe as Butcher
Kenneth Nkosi as Aap
Thembi Nyandeni as Soekie
Terry Pheto as Miriam
Ian Roberts as Captain Smit
Rapulana Seiphemo as John Dube
Owen Sejake as Gumboot Dlamini
Zola as Fela
Directed by Gavin Hood
It’s hard to fully empathize or support the actions of this South African film’s title character, but the story’s strong message of repentance and redemption is one that is almost impossible not to admire.
Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae), a 19-year-old orphaned hoodlum living in a shantytown just outside Johannesburg, South Africa, steals a car, but when he finds a baby in the backseat, he learns that he has to grow up and start taking some responsibility.
While there have been plenty of movies set in South Africa in recent years, “Tsotsi” is a different breed. It’s very much a South African story told from that viewpoint, rather than being a view of the country from outsiders. It’s been almost 12 years since the end of Apartheid, but as Americans, we tend to still associate the country with its separatist regime.
Without completely ignoring the topic, Gavin Hood’s adaptation of Athol Fugard’s 1980 novel, which has virtually no white characters, focuses instead on the problems the country has faced since then: poverty, crime and a a class system that has left a large gap between the wealthy and the likes of the film’s title character, a teenaged orphan who has been forced to live on his own for years. When we meet Tsotsi, he’s leading a vicious street gang who rob and steal to survive, and in a scene right out of “A Clockwork Orange,” he faces down a coup by beating one of them, a former teacher, within an inch of his life. Off on his own, Tsotsi pulls a violent carjacking, only to discover a baby in the backseat. Not telling anyone about his new discovery, Tsotsi brings the tot home and tries to care for it, even threatening a local woman from his shantytown into breastfeeding it. In the meantime, there’s a desperate police search for the baby, while the mother lies in the hospital after being shot.
The idea of a gangster finding and caring for a baby is nothing new, though Hollywood might have used the premise to try to play up the comedic factor, but here, the story idea is used to show the transition of a violent killer into someone finally able to take responsibility for his life and action. That’s really what makes “Tsotsi” such a memorable and worthwhile film.
The main obstacle the film faces, at least at first, is that Tsotsi isn’t a particularly sympathetic character, and he does a lot of things with and without his gang in the first third of the movie that makes you wonder why you’re expected to care what happens to him. At least in Tsotsi’s case, his lack of a moral barometer seems to have a lot to do with his upbringing and lack of strong parental figures. Fortunately, the film gets better as it goes along, the true turning point being when we finally see a flashback to the incident that made Tsotsi run away from home, and that makes things much clearer. Ultimately, it leads up to Tsotsi’s gang returning to the scene of his carjacking, forcing him to make a tough decision about doing what’s right, even if it means he’ll be put in jail.
Obviously, the star of the piece is newcomer Presley Chweneyagae, who does an outstanding job showing both sides of this troubled young man. The way he brings credibility to character’s transformation and actually makes you like him by the end is the true magic of this film. The rest of the cast, mainly consisting of non-actors, isn’t nearly as impressive or memorable, and some of the scenes don’t seem to serve much purpose to the overall story at first, such as Tsotsi’s decision to rob a homeless man in a wheelchair. Most of these start to make more sense as the story comes together later in the film.
While this story could have easily been told in any major city faced by crime and/or poverty, the Johannesburg area of South Africa brings another level to the film, not only because we get to see another side of the country, but also because Gavin Hood takes full advantage of the country’s rich culture. The score is enriched by the driving rhythms of Kwaito musicthe area’s version of hip-hopand we get a suitable taste for the plethora of languages used by various peoples and classes of the region. The cinematography is also quite fantastic, using wide-angle shots to capture the full scope of the Johannesburg setting, especially when you can see the barren wilderness in the foreground and the shantytown teaming with life in the background. Like Fernando “City of God” Meirelles, Gavin Hood is definitely a filmmaker to keep a close eye on.
The Bottom Line:
There’s much to admire and appreciate about this South African story, once you can get past the title character’s initial unsympathetic behavior and the lack of professional actors. Once you do, it’s a heartwarming story of redemption sure to win anyone over by the end.
Tsotsi opens in select cities this weekend.