In a pivotal scene early in Oscar award-winning Tsotsi, lightning flashes across the sky and over its titular figure -- a young man in one strobe-flare, a boy in the next. The young man is someone out of scare-headlines about post-apartheid South Africa -- a hardened street criminal from the townships, fresh from a vicious murder and an assault on a fellow gang member. The image of the boy that appears a split-second later, viewers learn over the course of Gavin Hood's wrenching film, is a flashback to none other than Tsotsi (“thug”) himself, before he left behind the name his mother gave him and took up his street moniker.
The scene is reminiscent of that moment in horror movies when something from a nightmare world escapes and enters our sleepy bourgeois hamlets, just before the villagers come running with spears and torches. But Hood isn't interested in demonizing his main character, despite the rawness with which he depicts Tsotsi's violent acts. As the flickering image of Tsotsi as a child attests, Hood's film is out to show the human underneath the stereotypical superpredator -- and how this “monster” was not born, but man-made.
That Tsotsi -- adapted from playwright Athol Fugard's novel set in a period of harsh apartheid rule in the ‘50s -- has been so effortlessly updated into modern-day South Africa is its own damning statement on the lingering effects of racial oppression. And yet the racial critique remains a subtext in the film -- a strong yet scarcely visible undertow.
Hood is not interested in white guilt or redemption, as so many films about Africa myopically are. Rather, he focuses on inner lives of his black African characters, plumbs into their pasts, their thwarted hopes and fragile dreams, and reveals them to be something far beyond the villains and victims, the dramatic props they too often become in movies about their own lives.
Presley Chweneyagae doesn't shy away from portraying a character who inspires fear and hatred, at least at first. The young actor, plucked from Johannesburg community theater, plays Tsotsi with the light-footed menace of a bantamweight with a blood-thirst. In a queasily intimate scene, Tsotsi and his cronies knife a man and clutch his body to theirs to mask the crime. Later, one of the gang members starts hemorrhaging from his conscience over the murder and earns a terrifying beat-down from Tsotsi, who flees into that lightning-lit night, carjacks an affluent black mother and finds…a baby in the backseat.
A baby in a bloody movie -- a device nearly unparalleled in its ability to manipulate audiences, catalyze the schematic humanization of a detestable character. City of God plus Three Men and a Baby? The Terminator playing poppa? But somehow, Tsotsi sidesteps both the slick cynicism of the street noir and the saccharine sweetness of the birth-of-a-daddy trope. Part of it is how Hood avoids the jittery criminal-cam that's now a cliché convention of the ‘hood flick, burnishing the township instead in a burnt-ochre glow. As for Tsotsi's parenting skills, he hauls the baby around in a brown paper bag, and there is an unfortunate run-in with ants and sweet condensed milk.
Subjected to Tsotsi's hell-on-earth surroundings and his panicky attempts to fend for the baby, the audience nearly breathes a sigh of relief for the archetypal figures who anchor the story -- the disabled seer, the scarred villain, the remorseful could-have-been, and the vibrant earth-mama, Miriam (the luminously poised Terry Pheto), whom Tsotsi forces to care for “his” son at gunpoint.
These characters could fall fable-flat, but the actors give them tender nuance, particularly Pheto, who combines Mariam's fear, compassion, and clear-sighted gaze into a fragile refuge in which Tsotsi can embark on his own truth and reconciliation process of remembering a childhood ravaged by AIDS and alcoholism. As a result, Tsotsi's tottering movement towards an emotional reckoning rings psychologically true -- Hood beautifully illustrates the terror and redemption in experiencing and mourning long-repressed pain.
Hood is not above operatic levels of melodrama -- but the sounds of open-mouthed bawling and Kleenex-rustling in the theater where I watched the film speak to the effectiveness of his approach. For all its crashing full-bore violence and wrenching flashbacks, Tsotsi has a delicately complex ending, a surrender of sorts that holds forth both the possibility of a fraught future and the promise of hope, much like what may lie ahead for South Africa itself. Tsotsi's is a grace granted not through God or the white man, the film seems to attest, but one gained through gritted teeth – perhaps the only kind worth fighting for in the end.
Noy Thrupkaew is a Prospect senior correspondent.