Tsotsi

Adapted from acclaimed South African playwright Athol Fugard's only novel and nominated for 2005's best-foreign-language-film Oscar, writer-director Gavin Hood's powerful crime drama does more than just expose the criminal underbelly of South African township life. Like THE HARDER THEY COME (1973), CITY OF GOD (2002) and the underrated SECUESTRO EXPRESS...read more

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Reviewed by Ken Fox
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Adapted from acclaimed South African playwright Athol Fugard's only novel and nominated for 2005's best-foreign-language-film Oscar, writer-director Gavin Hood's powerful crime drama does more than just expose the criminal underbelly of South African township life. Like THE HARDER THEY COME (1973), CITY OF GOD (2002) and the underrated SECUESTRO EXPRESS (2004), it accurately depicts the deep divisions that threaten to destabilize society as a whole. Known around his Johannesburg shantytown only by the ghetto slang word for "thug," teenage gang-leader "Tsotsi" (Presley Chweneyagae, in a powerful debut performance) refuses to divulge anything about his past, not even to his small criminal crew: slow-witted yes-man Aap (Kenneth Nkosi), Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), a psychopath with a stiletto and no qualms about using it, and aspiring teacher Boston (Mothusi Magano), the only one with an active sense of decency. Disgusted by Butcher's gratuitous stabbing of a well-dressed black man during a routine mugging, Boston confronts Tsotsi and demands to know the details of his past: What's his real name? Who and where are his parents? Does he ever feel anything? Tsotsi responds by beating Boston's face to a pulp and, driven by memories of his brutal father and terminally ill mother, running off into the stormy night. Wandering into a well-to-do suburb where black South Africans live protected from the crime of the slums by alarm systems and mechanical gates, Tsotsi carjacks a young woman (Nambitha Mpumlwana) in a sleek BMW and shoots her when she resists, only later realizing later that her infant son is in the backseat. Panicked, Tsotsi abandons the car but takes the baby, hiding him in a shopping bag ironically emblazoned with the words "Expect More." Unable to properly feed the baby, he enlists the help — albeit at gunpoint — of beautiful young widow Miriam (Terry Pheto), who's been raising her own child alone since her missing husband was presumably murdered by thugs. Tsotsi's encounters with Miriam help him confront his traumas, but redemption may have come too late: Tsotsi's victim survived to give the police a detailed description of her attacker. Originally set in the 1950s, Tsotsi's story was updated to the postapartheid present to prove a sharp point: For many black South Africans, little has changed. Disenfranchised both from Afrikaners and the black minority who found a successful place in their country's future, South Africa's poor are besieged by crime, poverty and the scourge of AIDS, whose bitter legacy is that kids like Tsotsi are left homeless, orphaned and utterly without hope.