Tsotsi clues you in on how much disbelief you’re going to have to suspend for it pretty quickly. It begins with a gang of four—the title character (Presley Chweneyagae), the hotheaded Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), the voice of conscience Boston (Mothusi Magano), and the adipose and likable Aap (Kenneth Nkosi)—robbing a man at knifepoint on a stuffed Johannesburg train. This is risky but doable, from both criminal and storytelling standpoints. But when Butcher loses his shit and stabs the man to death and the quartet have to hold him up and make him seem alive Weekend-at-Bernie’s-style until everyone conveniently gets off at the next stop…well, do you think anyone would get away with that? Yes, it’s a breach of etiquette to check people out on the subway, but in this post-9/11 generation of “If you see something, say something,” I have to believe that in real life, someone would notice such an occurrence happening not six inches away from them, speak the fuck up, and end this story before it begins. (Intriguing, that this is based on an Athol Fugard novel.) So, Tsotsi is a cartoon—albeit a brutal, gripping one, convincingly acted. The hook alone is enough to get an audience to watch through to the end: in a tense moment during a rainstorm, Tsotsi shoots a wealthy woman, jacks her car for shelter, and drives off—only to find her infant child in the backseat. What will Tsotsi do? What would you do? How, if at all, will Tsotsi change from his realization of his actions and the devastation they have caused? The film’s strongest aspect is Tsotsi’s dubious rapport with Miriam (the brilliant Terry Pheto), a neighbor of his and a newborn mother who he forces to act as the baby’s wet nurse. That of course fits the definition of sexual assault, yet Miriam puts the baby’s interests ahead of her own, and a dynamic develops between captor and captive in which each tries to figure out the other. Where lesser films would resort to a half-assed Stockholm syndrome, herein, Tsotsi does slowly change from his involvement with the blunt yet understanding Miriam, yet they do not become friends and their time together is finite. There are other solid moments, such as Tsotsi’s interactions with a homeless paraplegic, and his gradual falling out with the rest of the gang. The tone of melodrama is never quite forsaken; the main characters make some egregiously stupid decisions throughout. But we understand why they make them, and the film earns its heartfelt conclusion. (Not to mention, the stunts performed by the actors playing the baby are baffling.)
In memory of Sandra Bland.