Tsotsi Elevates Humanity

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Director Gavin Hood projects the inherent failure of unbridled capitalism in The New South Africa subtly in his award-winning adaptation of playwright Athol Fugard’s "Tsotsi." Through a character study of hardened man-child Tsotsi, whose name simply means "thief" in local Johannesburg slang, Hood explores the meaning of our "New" South Africa. An adaptation of Athol Fugard’s play written in the 1950’s, the film echoes the inescapable conflict colonialism has stained the continent with since the 20th century. Social ills, economic inequality, destabilized family centers, political corruption, and the shame associated with HIV/Aids are wondrously presented in Hood’s immensely sensitive interpretation.

As Tsotsi claws his way through a life of crime and brutality he finds himself cornered between the state and his own self-destruction. Tsotsi has developed such a hard exterior that he pummels one of his closest friends in the opening scenes of the film after his friend challenges Tsotsi to tell the group his real name. Tsotsi goes on to carjack a woman that same night only to realize after crashing the car that there’s a baby in the backseat. From there we watch Tsotsi unravel as he tries to cope with the newborn child.

Presley Chweneyagae is remarkable as Tsotsi. He offers a range of emotion and vulnerability often difficult for people to confront in real life. On screen his presence reflects vividly the unprotected lives of children whose families are pulled apart under the pressures of illness, poverty, and neglect. He clings to the baby with a fierce loneliness that captures our collective need for each other in a way that blends the mother-father-child relationship inexplicably.

Terry Pheto provides a steadfast will to her character as the young widowed mother, Miriam, who finds herself breastfeeding a child who’s not hers at gunpoint along with her own newborn. It is through their uneasy relationship that Tsotsi gains enough clarity to restore a sense of order to the characters’ lives in the film.

Though the film’s final scenes evoke a sense of surrender, the humanity that is reawakened in Presley’s character echoes the hopes and dreams of downtrodden people everywhere. As South Africa seems to remind us over and over again, it is up to the human family to prove that, "We can and we must do better than this."

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