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Film Review ***..: Standing Up for Hope In the Slums

Award-winning South African Film ...Tsotsi... Fights for Redemption

By Beckett W. Sterner


Written and directed by Gavin Hood

Based on the novel by Athol Fugard

Starring Presley Chweneyagae
and Terry Pheto

Rated R

Destruction — of people, lives and community — is a fact of life in the ghetto. What sets “Tsotsi” apart as a film about the life of an urban gangster is its message of hope.

From the start, we experience urban life in the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa, through its music, an enthralling innovation on hip-hop. The soundtrack of the film is dominated by the compositions of Zola, or Bonginkosi Dlamini, in the new “kwaito” style of South African music. Dlamini takes his name from the Zola district of Soweto, where he experienced an embattled childhood. Kwaito isn’t simply a reflection of suffering and despair, though it does have the gritty, angry tone of hip-hop everywhere. Rather, as Zola has described it, “Kwaito kids are made from hunger, abuse, no father, violence, and guns. Now as adults we must change the game for the better. Now we must change everything we are made from.”

This message of the hope permeates the film, but the story stays firmly grounded in the scarred life of its main character. Known to the world only by his epithet, Tsotsi (Presley Chweneyagae) is a young, violent man who leads a small gang out each night to steal from the rich of Johannesburg. Tsotsi’s face is a mask that matches how he hides his tragic past from everyone — early on, his gang fissures when a member, Teacher Boy (Mothusi Magano), demands that Tsotsi tell him his real name, and Tsotsi reacts by beating him to the ground and running away. The possibility of Tsotsi’s redemption from trauma and violence is what courses through the heart of the film’s powerful plot.

The force that drives Tsotsi to transform himself is the altruism of fatherhood, a unifying theme that flows through the film. Shortly after beating up Teacher Boy, the protagonist finds himself in an affluent neighborhood, where he opportunistically steals a car from a woman arriving home, and finds out only later when he crashes the car into a signpost that he has stolen her child in the backseat as well. Forced to abandon the car, Tsotsi must face the choice of whether to abandon the child as well.

The secondary characters of “Tsotsi” are straightforward and often fall into recognizable types; for the complacent viewer, they seem quite genuine, but critics will see a lack of imagination. Miriam (Terry Pheto) stands out in her complexity as a woman whom Tsotsi coerces into helping him, but who helps tease out what he has hidden behind his mask. In one sense, though, the straightforwardness and lack of guile of the film’s characters are a necessary condition for Tsotsi’s redemption: his trust in others is so fragile that a single act of betrayal could shatter it. The other characters make solid contributions, but the film is rightly named after its most interesting character.

“Tsotsi” is an Academy Award-winning film from South Africa in particular, and it’s tempting to look there for the origins of the film’s genuine and honest nature. In an interview, Zola made a relevant suggestion: “I think South Africa could be used as therapy for a lot of American kids. If they knew the real inspiring story of who we are and how we live and how you might think [Nelson] Mandela is just one guy … Four-year-olds live under the same inspiration that Mandela gave us and they follow the same lifestyle of forgive and make peace … make the best of yourself, help the brother next door.” Whether South African in origin or not, the message of compassion and hope in “Tsotsi” shines brightly against the gloom of the ghetto everywhere.