A hoodlum with a heart

“Tsotsi,” honored as the best foreign film at Sunday’s Oscar ceremony, brings the theme of redemption to the slums of Johannesburg, South Africa.

The title character is a 19-year-old gang leader in one of the largest townships, living day by day, victim to victim. Tsotsi, which in Kwaito, the street language of South Africa, means “thug” or “gangster,” was orphaned at an early age and lived with other children on the street. He has grown into a gang leader, attacking people with his friends Butcher, a menacing murderer; Aap, a harmless oaf; and Boton, the moral member of the group.

After a night of robbery and murder on the subway, Boston is fed up with the gang’s brutality. He questions Tsotsi’s sense of decency, asking if he has ever even heard of the word. Tsotsi heartlessly beats his best friend and escapes into the rainy night, finding shelter under a tree in an affluent suburb. Seeing a car pull into a nearby driveway, Tsotsi carjacks and shoots the woman driver, but having never driven before, quickly crashes the car into a sign. Leaving the scene, he hears the sound of a baby crying and finds an infant in the backseat.

Tsotsi is unable to leave the child there, for as an orphan himself he knows the pain of abandonment. Over the next six days he takes care of the child with the help of a local woman who has a child of her own. The infant makes Tsotsi remember and reflect upon his own childhood, something he has repressed for years. Ultimately, the film tells the story of redemption and one man’s ability to rediscover not only his past but also his humanity and decency.

Directed by South African Gavin Hood, the film chooses not to directly address the overarching issues of South Africa and instead focuses on Tsotsi. Although Tsotsi’s visit to the affluent suburbs illustrates stark class differences, the director does not make any judgments. Rather, Hood chooses to depict life as anyone living in South Africa would see it. As he said in an August interview with The Financial Times: “My parents have been car jacked; I have been mugged. We all know what it is like. But do you write a story about the way it is, or the way it should, or could, or needs to be?”

The aesthetics of the film are also quite striking. Every scene seems to be lit with a golden hue, showing a sense of beauty even within the slums and tenements of Soweto, the township setting of the film. However, during Tsotsi’s horrifying flashbacks, we are thrust into a dark world of painful memory.

Hood thoughtfully uses his cinematic technique to further evoke emotion. Hood also presents subtle clues to foreshadow elements of the plot, most notably in the first few scenes of the film when we see giant billboards that read “HIV and AIDS Affects Us All.” At first glance it seems an expected prop in a South African setting; it is only later that we learn that Tsotsi left his home for a criminal’s life on the streets after the death of his mother from AIDS.

“Tsotsi” is a thought-provoking and compassionate tale of redemption, expertly set against the backdrop of a global epidemic and a society of injustice, prompting discussion of social responsibility, morality and human decency.

“Tsotsi” opens in Washington, D.C., Friday, April 14.

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