With TSOTSI, Gavin Hood has taken the liberty of updating the timeframe of South African writer Athol Fugard’s only novel. In doing so, the politics of apartheid that spurred the story in the book has given way to the tragedy of AIDS. Changing the circumstances of its title character’s orphaning, though, doesn’t affect the nature of the larger story, that of throwaway children and society’s response to and responsibility for them.
TSOTSI (Presley Chwenayagae) is a gang leader in one of Johannesburg’s shantytowns. He and his two cronies prowl their neighborhood victimizing those weaker then they are, and pull small-time robberies in the more affluent parts of town. One of these, a carjacking, goes very wrong when the owner of the car refuses to hand it over, continuing to try to stop Tsotsi even after being shot by him. As he speeds away, the reason becomes clear. There’s a baby in the back seat. Instead of ditching the child with the car, he puts it into one of the shopping bags he finds with the baby, and takes it home. And there, in the irony of throwaway child taking responsibility for a child that hasn’t been thrown away, exactly, but inadvertently snatched from its parents, begins Tstoti’s road to redemption.
It’s not a quick transition. The brutality of Tsotsi’s nature that Hood depicts in detail is an integral part of his persona. The beatings and worse we see him inflict with no emotion on friend, foe, and stranger alike are very much in mind as he holds a young mother at gunpoint to force her to nurse the child. There is in Chwenayagae, though, an astonishing ability to combine the menace of the streets and the genuine threat of harm he represents to the woman with the fierceness of Tsosti’s determination, even obsession, to nurture this baby. He nails the instinctive way that Tsotsi responds to the baby, channeling a lifetime of motherlessness into mothering this tiny helpless bundle, and by doing so, reclaiming a tiny bit of his humanity. There is no more poignant moment in the life of this thug than when he takes the baby, in its shopping bag, to visit the abandoned pipes that he called home after he was tossed away by his father. It’s a disquieting mixture of pride in how far he’s come, as far as being able to take care of himself, and how far he’s fallen, as he talks with the kids who now live in his old digs and who have not yet become hardened and cold.
Going beyond the circumstances that were beyond Tsotsi’s control, becoming a criminal in order to survive, the story deals with the way he chooses to live his life once a choice is offered to him. And then how society chooses to view that. The struggle, exquisitely embodied by Chwenayagae, that Tsosti undergoes to understand what is happening to him serves as more than a personal transformation, but as a metaphor for the struggle of the underclass as a whole whose every instinct is to be anything but soft, anything but trusting. At the same time, Hood is unstinting in showing the pain that Tsotsi is inflicting on everyone around him, from friends to the baby’s parents, and how each instance demands justice. When a confrontation with a crippled beggar changes the way Tsotsi sees the world, his efforts to change are met with resistance from within and without. For himself, he’s unsure of how to live any other way but with anger and a knife. While all around him, there are only the angry, suspicious stares of those who have been victimized by him, and that includes everyone in his orbit, who are unwilling to believe that he would want to change, much less that he could.
TSOTSI remains at all times an intensely human story, one that transcends the particulars of its time and its place. It’s also one that is deliberately challenging as it tweaks the audiences sympathies, emotions, and assumptions about the nature of true justice.