Tsotsi, a gang member living in a township, makes a living mugging and carjacking more affluent people. One day, while hijacking a car, he finds a baby on the back seat and takes him home. Identifying with the baby, he forces a young mother in the township to take care of him. Slowly remembering his own childhood, and his mother who had died from AIDS, he ends up returning the baby to his affluent parents.
A major success in both South Africa and around the world, winner of the 2005 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Tsotsi took some risks: it featured no stars, but for the most part young unknown actors, was shot on location in Soweto, and its dialogue is mostly in tsotistaal, a hybrid of languages, such as Afrikaans, Sotho, Zwana and Zulu, spoken in the townships around Johannesburg. At the same time the film sparked much debate and controversy as far as its politics are concerned.
Tsotsi is based on the novel by the same name written by accomplished South African playwright Athol Fugard. Fugard had started the novel after the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, during which 69 people protesting pass laws restricting the movement of black South Africans were shot by apartheid police. Not published until 1980, four years after the Soweto uprising, during which police shot numerous students protesting the introduction of Afrikaans as the language of instruction, the novel is set in Sophiatown in the 1950s, shortly before this black cultural hub where non-whites could own property was razed to make room for the white suburb Triomf. The film updates the setting: Tsotsi’s mother does not die because of apartheid, but of AIDS, and the baby is not ‘historyless’ (Rijsdijk and Haupt 2007: 38) but has affluent black South African parents, which introduces an entirely new storyline.
Critics have thus rightfully pointed out that in the film economic apartheid has replaced racial apartheid. The affluent black father is comfortable speaking up against the police and making a claim on the State. Within such economic apartheid, the film explores different kinds of violence, domestic, criminal and systemic (Dovey 2007: 155), but does not necessarily offer possible solutions to the violence. Within this context, the film’s ending is important: Hood shot two versions, one in which Tsotsi escapes and another in which he gets shot by the police, but decided to use neither. Instead the film ends with a confrontation between the affluent black father and poor Tsotsi, leaving ‘the final critique of Tsoti’s violence to contemporary viewers’ (Dovey 2007: 160). But a pirated version with the ending in which Tsotsi is shot by the police circulated widely in South Africa, allowing for a very different reading of the film.
It may therefore not be surprising that the film has divided critics: South African critics have generally been much harsher with the film, while foreign commentators tend to defend it. Disagreements concern the film’s (un)willingness to critique the state as well as its representation of class, race and gender. Daniel Lehman, for instance, argues that the film critiques the economic and AIDS policies of then President Thabo Mbeki, who encouraged black economic empowerment for a select few but did little about widespread poverty, and who refused effective HIV treatment, which he saw as an ‘assault on … black male sexuality’ (Mark Gevisser quoted in Lehman 2011a: 97). By contrast, South African critics argue that the film legitimises the State, by having fairly sympathetic white cops, by allowing the AIDS issue to be lost in the background of the plot, and above all by insisting on Tsotsi’s positive, but entirely internal change that leaves all the responsibility up to the protagonist, apparently suggesting that individual initiative is enough and that economic, health and other state policies do not have to be changed (see Dovey 2007; Barnard 2008).
At the heart of these debates is the question of how important – or how unimportant – the film’s relatively conventional, Hollywood-style narrative is. Gavin Hood himself has said that he filmed a classic story of redemption that he thinks has universal appeal (see Archibald and Hood 2006). His camera movements, he suggests, are minimal, driven by characters (Gunn 2009: 49). In classical Hollywood stories, (usually male, white) protagonists drive the plot. In Tsotsi, Tsotsi (a word meaning thug) starts out as a nameless, expressionless character tortured by flashbacks. In the course of the story, as he identifies with the baby (whom he gives his own name), he remembers more and more of his childhood. Emotionally driven flashbacks tell his traumatising story: after his father – who, misinformed about AIDS, would not let his son near his dying mother (though he probably infected her with the virus) – kicks and paralyzes his dog, David, as he was then called, runs away, becoming a homeless child and a nameless thug. While the film tells the story about how Tsotsi, through the baby and by remembering his traumatic past, finds respect and decency, critics have pointed out that such a transformation is both unlikely and problematic. In the film, Tsotis’s maturation, or Bildung, happens all too easily. By contrast, Rita Barnard argues, the novel is a ‘meditation on the sociopolitical preconditions for a coherent subjectivity and narration’, a meditation, that is, on how the apartheid state makes telling one’s story, and thus one’s maturation and social mobility, difficult if not impossible (Barnard 2008: 549).
More specifically, Tsotsi is part of the gangster film genre. The word tsotsi, possibly derived from the English zoot suit, first emerged in 1930s Sophiatown, and represents an appropriation and transposition of the American gangster into a South African context. Not exactly unlike the American gangsters who often emerged in poor, ethnic environments, the tsotsi stands for mobility, violence, fashion – in short everything poor blacks were not allowed to be under the apartheid regime. As Rosalind Morris has it, the tsotsi ‘invest[s] the township with commodity desire’ (Morris 2010: 99). But while stylishness can sometimes be marshalled for radical politics, as it was for instance in the zoot suit riots of 1943, the connection between stylishness and critique is not always obvious. Barnard complains that ‘gangsterism purely as style … [is] not a real threat to the status quo’ (Barnard 2008: 561). Such stylishness also approaches Tsotsi to film noir, a film movement often noted for its sense of style and fashion, and in this context one could easily look in more detail at the film’s careful use of colours and lighting.
But fashion and stylishness are not everything. Dovey helpfully points out that from the 1950s onward, there were two different kinds of tsotsis, ‘smartly dressed gangsters who tend to operate on big money from whites or Asians (represented in Tsotsi by Fela) … [and] marginalised boys who operate out of the desperation of poverty and who tend to serve the former kind of tsotsi’ (Dovey 2007: 154–4). Tsotsi/David belongs more clearly to the latter kind, and in this context, it would be interesting to think of another of Hood’s stylistic choices: his widescreen images place faces in landscapes, emphasising how much Tsotsi/ David belongs to the township, as well as the gulf that separates the township from the modern city. Tsotsi/David remains embedded in the landscape, unable to escape the township (Dovey 2007: 154).
No discussion of Tsotsi would be complete without a discussion of its soundtrack. Many have noted the marked presence of kwaito music by South African artist Zola who also plays Fela in the film. Many of these tracks were pre-existing hits, and Zola’s celebrity was used to market the film and its music (Rijsdijk and Haupt 2007: 33). Kwaito was first developed by gangsters in 1950s Sophiatown, and has been influenced by gangsta rap. Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk and Adam Haupt have argued that the use of Zola’s kwaito music ‘constantly re-affirms a homogeneous black urban masculinity by not offering musical diversity’ (Rijsdijk and Haupt 2007: 36). But kwaito is not the only music in the film, there are also ‘choral arrangements, and … the combination of low bass notes, rattles and percussion that accompany scenes of action or tension in the film’ (Rijsdijk and Haupt, 2007: 31). In the course of the film, we see a shift from the ‘urban, fast-paced, heterosexist, aggressive and lyrically violent music of Zola to the soulful choral style of Mahlasela and Maphumulo’ (Rijsdijs and Haupt 2007: 31). Tsotsi/David’s emotional transformation gets associated with choral themes.
As becomes evident in this discussion of the film’s music, questions of gender have lurked everywhere in the critical debate surrounding Tsotsi. Rijsdijk and Haupt conclude that the film runs the risk of ‘essentialising conventional gender roles in which women are nurturers and men are violent plunderers’ (Rijsdijk and Haupt 2007: 41). As noted earlier, the upper-middle-class couple is an addition in the film; in the novel, Tsotsi does not hijack a car but encounters a frightened, black woman in a grove and comes close to raping her. The topic of rape has disappeared from the film, although, Dovey reminds us, there was a 400 per cent increase in child rape in South Africa from 1988 to 2003, and that in 2003 children under 12 made up 40 per cent of South Africa’s annual 1 million rape victims, in part because of the myth that raping a virgin would cure HIV/AIDS (Dovey 2007: 157). By contrast, Lehman focuses on the character of Miriam who takes on ‘an increasingly proactive function’, whose encounters with Tsotsi suggest that Hood does not avoid the topic of potential sexual violence (Lehman 2011b: 118). Along with the baby, she nudges Tsotsi toward a less aggressive masculinity, an alternative to the masculine violence also embodied by his father. Not coincidentally, when the film came out, real tsotis objected that Tsotis/David looked too soft and sloppy (Dovey 2007: 153).
Tsotsi can be located in the context of the postapartheid flourishing of South African films, which often have high production values and run the risk of being ‘Hollywoodised’. The NFVF (National Film and Video Foundation) specifically allocates funding to films that are adaptations of South African literature, which tends to privilege texts by white South Africans. Likewise, white directors have been more enamoured by the themes of reconciliation and redemptions than black or coloured directors. At the same time, Tsotsi also participates in a wave of internationally acclaimed films about gangsters and hoods, including the Brazilian film, City of God (2002) and the AngloIndian film, Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Like these other films, Tsotsi toys with the tradition of neorealism, famous from films such as Bicycle Thieves (1948), which employed non-professional actors, yet, at the same time, the film’s production values and narrative resemble Hollywood melodrama. These different legacies certainly help explain some of the contradictions of the film, which have generated so much debate.
Cast & Crew:
[Country: South Africa, UK. Production Company: The UK Film and TV Production Company PLC, Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, The National Film and Video Foundation of SA, Moviworld. Director: Gavin Hood. Producer: Peter Fudakowski. Screenwriter: Gavin Hood (based on the novel by Athol Fugard). Cinematographer: Lance Gewer. Music: Paul Hepker, Mark Kilian. Editor: Megan Gill. Cast: Presley Chweneyagae (Tsotsi), Terry Pheto (Miriam), Kenneth Nkosi (Aap), Mothusi Magano (Boston), Zenzo Ngqobe (Butcher), Zola (Fela), Rapulana Seiphemo (John Dube), Nambitha Mpumlwana (Pumla Dube), Ian Roberts (Captain Smit), Jerry Mofokeng (Morris).]
David Archibald and Gavin Hood, ‘Violence and Redemption: An Interview with Gavin Hood’, Cineaste, Vol. 31, No. 2, Spring 2006, pp. 44–47.
Rita Barnard, ‘Tsotsis: On Law, the Outlaw, and the Postcolonial State’, Contemporary Literature, Vol. 49, No. 4, Winter 2008, pp. 541–72.
Lindiwe Dovey, ‘Redeeming Features: From “Tsotsi” (1980) to “Tsotsi” (2006)’, in Journal of African Cultural Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2, December 2007, pp. 143–64.
Judith Gunn, Studying Tsotsi, Leighton Buzzard, Auteur, 2009.
Daniel W. Lehman, ‘Tsotsi Transformed: Retooling Athol Fugard for the Thabo Mbeki Era’, in Research in African Literatures, Vol. 42, No. 1, Spring 2011a, pp. 87–101.
Daniel W. Lehman, ‘When We Remembered Zion: The Oscar, the Tsotsi, and the Contender’, English in Africa, Vol. 38, No. 3, October 2011b, pp. 113–29.
Rosalind C. Morris, ‘Style, Tsotsi-Style, and Tsotistaal: The Histories, Aesthetics and Politics of a South African Figure’, Social Text, Vol. 28, No. 2, Summer 2010, pp. 85–112.
Ian-Malcolm Rijsdijk and Adam Haupt, ‘Redemption to a kwaito beat: Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi’, in Journal of the Musical Arts in Africa, Vol. 4, No. 1, 2007, pp. 29–46.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.