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Spring 2006 | Volume 29, Number 2 | Books & Film

Africa’s Oscar-Winning Tsotsi

A Baby-Stealing Gangster Wrestles With His Conscience

Question: What happens when a newborn baby ends up in the care of a lawless, gun-toting gangster? Answer: That really depends on the gangster.

Tsotsi is an R-rated film about gangsters in Johannesburg, and thus it’s probably not the kind of movie you usually make a point to rush out and see. Take note: It's time to turn over a new leaf. This is one of the must-see movies of 2006.

You’ll need a strong stomach, as the hoodlums who think they rule these shantytown streets are reckless, foul-mouthed, and willing to shed blood in order to get what they want. But don't leave ... it's the starkness of that darkness that makes Gavin Hood’s Oscar-winning adaptation of Athol Fugard’s novel such a satisfying story of redemption, the kind of thing to stir compassion in viewers’ hearts, and to remind us that sometimes God can reach even the most prodigal of his children.

Hood’s film follows a young gang leader through six days of crime, fear, and moral struggle. After he steals a woman’s car without thinking to check the back seat, Tsotsi (the name means “gangster”) discovers he has absconded with far more than he’d planned — namely, the woman’s infant son. Having never cared for a child before, Tsotsi debates whether to dump the child or to return him to his parents. But the cops are on his trail, combing the vast, chaotic Johannesburg townships for clues, and he’s forced to hide the baby in his apartment, keeping the screaming, hungry, frightened child concealed from his partners in crime.

Make no mistake — this isn’t another caper about child care along the lines of Raising Arizona or Three Men and a Baby. This is a hard-hitting story about the tug-of-war between one young man’s sinful nature and the still, small voice of conscience that still whispers in his ear.

Some may view its tale of how a baby can melt a murderous heart to be sentimental or formulaic — and they’re not entirely wrong. But Hood gives the simple storyline a compelling urgency, as though it is a lament not just for this character but for the countless, “feral” youth of South Africa, and for the families devastated by AIDS. His film has surprisingly jagged edges that get their hooks into you and pull you in, and he convinces you with a level of detail that speaks of firsthand experience with the people, their environment, and the economic crisis that divides them. The whole endeavor is fueled by adrenalin-rush music, a blend of contemporary African styles called “Kwaito,” which draws you along from the troubling start to the riveting finale.

Fugard’s original novel was based in 1950’s South Africa, but Hood has done a fine job of updating the material. He preserves its themes of conscience and redemption, while presenting audiences with an unnerving portrait of present-day Johannesburg, a sight that should spur viewers — especially Christians — to deeper concern and braver action in serving a part of the world where God’s children are in desperate need.

Actor Presley Chweneyagae is well cast, playing the strong, silent type of crook. He says very little, but he gives a complex and compelling performance, representing a generation driven by a need to survive, and lacking guidance and love.

And, yet, Tsotsi succeeds in more than just illustrating African hardships. It also offers a powerful appeal for each viewer to appreciate the value of every human life, even the most hardened of criminals. After all, some of the greatest heroes of the faith were raised up from lives of crime. There’s no reason to believe it doesn’t still happen today.

The many outspoken Christians that we hear appealing Hollywood for more “redeeming” stories would do well to look beyond Hollywood and acknowledge such stories wherever they come from. Tsotsi is a vision of darkness and trouble, but out of its shadows beams a beacon of hope, like so many of Scripture’s own redemption stories. In fact, it shines even brighter because of the authenticity and honesty in Hood’s depictions of darkness.

Moreover, the film impresses upon us that crooks like Tsotsi don’t just materialize out of nowhere. Tsotsi is a boy without a family to care for him, without education to enlighten him about the consequences of his actions, and without role models to show him the way. He’s surrounded by a gallery of other gangsters: Some behave like naïve children, others like soulless predators eager for an excuse to do harm. The damage that has wrecked their heads and hearts has not always been self-inflicted. Children learn about the world largely from their parents’ example. This is the key to finding compassion for Tsotsi, helpful in preventing others like him from straying off the straight and narrow.

But Tsotsi isn’t merely a victim of bad parenting. He has a conscience, and bears responsibility for his actions. Where does that conscience come from? He hasn’t had a role model to teach him right from wrong. Like the children of Calcutta’s Red Light district in the documentary Born Into Brothels, who inform the camera that the men and women of their neighborhood are unequivocally wrong in their behavior, we have here a brilliant testament to the fact that eternity has been written in our hearts… that God’s voice is at work in us from the beginning, coaxing us in the absolutes of good and evil.

Finally, Tsotsi is a remarkable and rare work because of Hood’s willingness to shine the spotlight on a crying, drooling, diaper-soiling infant. This is not an idealized big screen baby chosen to get viewers ooohing and ahhhing. The child confronts viewers with the vulnerability and need of a tiny human being who is completely dependent upon others for survival. And actress Terry Pheto gives a sensitive portrayal of a woman who is willing to take risks in order to save him. (Note: An unflinching scene of breastfeeding contributes to the film’s R-rating.)

Does the lack of big screen babies contribute to our societal abandonment of infants and the unborn? Does our mainstream media shy away from visual reminders of our origins, because it makes us uncomfortable and chips away at our pride and selfishness? If more filmmakers took the time to portray the beauty, fragility, and dependency of children, might we as a culture come to value them more?


To read past columns in Response OnScreen, click here.

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