Written and directed by Gavin Hood. Starring Presley Chweneyagae, Mothusi Magano, Zola, Kenneth Nkosi, and Terry Pheto. Based on the novel by Athol Fugard.
Tsotsi’s final shot asks that we consider a question so stupefying that it made me angry: Does a thieving, baby-kidnapping, mother-crippling, murderous thug deserve to be compared to Christ? Our antihero, now clad in an ironed white button-down shirt—he’s been in muddy-colored street gear for most of the movie—and with cheeks stained with tears, raises his arm to the moonlight. He glows white against the pitch-blank night and the police sirens around him create the aura of a halo.
I won’t tell you if he actually gets crucified, as that’s unfair, but in any case the comparison isn’t earned. Yes, by the movie’s end he has found salvation… for himself. But we’ve endured two hours of his steely, ferocious glare that only occasionally hints at the turmoil underneath. We’ve seen him explode into grisly, teeth-shattering bouts of violence. We’ve seen how his thuggery—“Tsotsi” is Soweto slang for “thug”—shatters homes and lives, and how he leaves a tremor of fear in his wake.
Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) leads a quartet of black street toughs, mostly because he talks less and seems to do less than the rest of them. When he acts, he does so quickly, decisively, and unexpectedly. Most of the violence is over before we’ve registered that it’s occurred—Tsotsi only fires two shots in the whole film, but both shots leave fallen bodies and both shots happen slightly against the rhythm of the scenes.
He observes more than everyone else around him. (Chweneyagae’s eyes move so intensely and precisely that they threaten to leave their sockets.) His first act is to find a mark in a subway station—he points out a businessman who’s carrying too much cash, too ostentatiously—and follow him onto the train. When the quartet surrounds the poor man on a crowded train, it’s Tsotsi’s stare that keeps the man quiet as they pick his pockets.
That combination of watchfulness and unpredictable fury that makes Tsotsi feared and respected in equal measures. His friends watch their backs around him. Even his closest comrade Aap (Kenneth Nkosi) wonders aloud to Tsotsi: “When is it going to be my turn?”
Indeed, Tsotsi wonders constantly when his time will be up, though he’s too cool to say it, exactly. Always looking over his shoulder, always trying to out-guess and out-stare those in front of him, he’s a boy obsessed with being in front of all potential enemies. He does it, oddly but intuitively, by staying behind everyone, lurking in shadows, sneaking up on people. He sees all but few see him until it’s too late.
It’s a fitting irony, then, that he gets sucker-punched by something behind him. A quick mugging and car theft goes wrong when he’s grinding the gears—one of Tsotsi’s precious few jokes comes from the fact that Tsotsi can’t drive—during the getaway. He checks over his shoulder, a reflex for him, and sees a baby in the backseat.
Tsotsi’s killed before, and he’ll kill again by movie’s end, but he can’t bring himself to abandon the baby. He takes it home, feeds it, and changes its diaper. He makes the new diaper out of newspaper and tape. He tries to get the baby to stop crying by booming some African hip-hop and dancing to it. These are the first humane things we’ve seen him do, and it’s a relief to see him be warm.
My friend Brünhilde worried initially that the movie was about to turn into Three African Gangsters and a Baby, but this tonal shift never occurs. Tsotsi genuinely cares about its protagonist, who begins the process of redemption by caring for the baby, but the film is rarely sentimental. The gleaming streets and glittering skyscrapers of Johannesburg are gorgeous but they loom over the ragtag squalor of Soweto, the township in which Tsotsi lives. This juxtaposition is oddly beautiful but also serves as a constant reminder of poverty and desperation amidst the glow of post-apartheid South Africa. The world Tsotsi and his hoods float through hasn’t been scrubbed free of dirt, litter, the ever-present public-service posters about AIDS, or the homeless.
Still, it’s a world that’s rendered beautifully. Despite the intrusive, ever-present hip-hop and a sound design that mixes background clatter so highly that it sometimes drowns out the dialogue, Tsotsi creates visual silence. It holds onto scenes for as long as they can bear, using long, excruciating takes to escalate tension. Close-ups are used intermittently; usually, what or who we need to see is just outside of the frame. It dares to linger on faces and bodies in stillness, just before they act or react.
Director Gavin Hood knows he has a stellar cast and that he shouldn’t cut away from his actors or chop up their scenes. Zola, as Fela the Butcher, shows us a vision of how sadistic Tsotsi could become—he smirks and pretends to be playful, just before he jabs you through the heart. Nkosi offers much-needed comic relief, but he refuses to descend into buffoonery. Mothusi Magano is the closest thing Tsotsi has to a conscience, but the actor sees the sadness in his character; his constant pulls at the beer bottle are reflex actions, natural for a lonely intellectual who discovers that he too is a thug. All of the supporting performances are naturalistic and sharp.
But the movie belongs to Chweneyagae and Terry Pheto, the mother he enlists, somewhat unwillingly on both sides, to help him with the baby. Tsotsi, desperate to save the baby but unable to see how, takes the woman hostage and forces her to breast-feed the infant. (She’s got one of her own.) Inside her house, he sees—for the first time—grace and clarity in the ghetto. Miriam creates mobiles, sculptures, and paintings. As much as caring for a baby changes him, as well as seeing how it’s properly done, it’s this home of light that floors him. For the first time, he sees how you can make joy amidst shit, how a world can be seen from a perspective that isn’t just full of pain. He’s awestruck by the possibilities, and humbled by the woman’s presence and tenderness. His tough-hood veneer begins to crack; he turns his head away from her as she breast-feeds.
The woman’s name, which I didn’t catch until the credits, is Miriam. The biblical symbolism’s too easy—Tsotsi’s real name is David—but at least she earns her namesake. Tsotsi’s history is given in brief, too-obvious flashbacks—mother who dies of AIDS? Check. Abusive father who drinks too much? Check. Beloved pet destroyed? Big, painful check—that at once give us too little and too much. They don’t properly explain how David evolved into Tsotsi. After all, Miriam and the countless Soweto folk on the periphery presumably grew up in these slums, but they didn’t all turn into thugs. Furthermore, these visual quips seem designed to excuse rather than explicate Tsotsi’s behavior. It’s lazy shorthand.
Which is a shame, because Tsotsi is an absorbing character study, and Chweneyagae’s multi-hued performance is a wonder to behold. As wonders go, however, it’s not the Resurrection, and Hood should know better than to try and make it so.