Distributed by: Miramax Films
Released: August 2005
Country: South Africa
"Everything depends on upbringing."–Leo Tolstoy
It is perhaps a legitimate point of view that blaming your parents for this or that weakness of yours is a cop-out. So Charlie Manson’s mom may not have hugged him enough—doesn’t seem like a good enough excuse for him to order the slaughter of a bunch of Californians, use their blood to write “Pigs” on the wall, and worst of all, make writer Vincent Bugliosi famous. But sometimes, you have to admit that a kid has a few strikes against him to start, all because of the way he was brought up.
Such is the issue with Tsotsi, or shall we call him David? Played by Presley Chweneyagae with smoldering anger, he is a young gangster in the slums of Johannesburg, not only given few hugs by his ma and pops, but forced to move out and set up keep in sewer pipes because of abuse and neglect. David is dealt a bad hand in life and isn’t as worried about morality as he is about survival.
|Prawn mistreatment: District 9|
The only other film I ever saw that was set in Johannesburg, I think, is 2009’s District 9, also set in the slums. In that film, an alien ship hovers over the city and the government forces all the “prawns,” i.e., the aliens, to live in an area known as, well, District 9. A message as subtle as a jackhammer.
|"You were a little slow that time."|
No prawns here, but the message is the same, if a bit more subtly presented—these people are stuck in their situation. David becomes Tsotsi, which means Little Gangster. And Tsotsi may be little, but he is the meanest, toughest hombre in the gang he’s assembled. The other guys all listen to what he says—like Steve and Eydie to Phil Hartman as Frank Sinatra in that SNL sketch: “Whatever you say, Tsotsi. You tell ‘em, Tsotsi. Right again, Tsotsi!” After all, if you don’t do what Tsotsi says, you may end up buried under Giants Stadium. Or something like that.
One day, while Tsotsi is out to do his normal robbery and murder, he steals a car. As he drives off, he looks in the back seat and WHOOPS! There’s a baby back there! What will Tsotsi do? Throw the baby out the window? Shoot the baby? Put a stamp on it and drop it in the nearest mailbox? Tsotsi doesn’t know what to do.
|All right, who left a baby in the backseat of the car I stole?|
It’s the baby, and the young woman Miriam he soon meets to help him (Terry Pheto) that will give him a chance to break out of his upbringing and have a chance at humanity. His gang members are confused as to why he would want to care for a little bambino. Has he gone soft? One friend inquires about the pretty Miriam: “Sure, she’s a real hotsy, Tsotsi, but what gives?” (I’m paraphrasing. I don’t speak the language.) The rest of the movie is really about how far this will go.
Tsotsi isn’t a fun movie to watch, what with all the squalor and murder and so forth. But it is a hopeful movie. In the list of Best Foreign Films, you will find a lot of European nihilistic ethos, a dread that comes with godlessness and cynicism. This film does not introduce anything like an overt Christian sentiment, and yet we find a hopefulness that makes this film worthwhile.
The Title: Little Gangster. It’s not often when the title character’s name is contained in the language of his name, if that makes sense. Tsotsitaal, as far as I am able to tell, means “language of the thug,” and is a mixed-up form of Afrikaans used in a scattered parts of South Africa.
The Culture: Certainly, this is a look at a very different culture and a different way of life than anything in European or Asian film.
Agenda Danger: This could have turned into a heavy-handed look at class, but instead it presents its characters and situations as they are, light on the preachiness, unlike the Oscar winner for Best Picture that year . . .
Best Picture that year: Crash
Rating: Tsotsi is one of those films I will never watch a second time, but certainly worth a good one-time screening.