Directed by Gavin Hood (2005)
Ubuntu is a Bantu word for a traditional African concept that means a person becomes human through interaction with others or "I am what I am because of who we all are". The idea of Ubuntu is embraced by Gavin Hood's Tsotsi, winner of the 2005 Academy Award for Best Foreign Film. Based upon Athol Fugard's 1961 novel of the same name, the film focuses not on the sixties but on contemporary South Africa, a society twelve years removed from apartheid but still facing crime, poverty, AIDS, and a huge gap between rich and poor. The violence it depicts is an everyday aspect of life in parts of Johannesburg and Soweto today but Hood does not glamorize it or distract us with bright colors, jump cuts, or hand-held camera work in City of God fashion. Rather he uses muted sepia tones and a conventional style to paint the bleak atmosphere of the slums and enter the mind of its inhabitants.
Supported by the energy and rhythm of South African Township music called Kwaito, Tsotsi immediately plunges us into a world of shantytowns, poverty, and cold-blooded crime. Tsotsi (Presley Chwenetagae) is a 19-year old reject, an orphaned hoodlum living in a slum across the river from the splendid high rise buildings of Johannesburg. In the "Tsotsi-Taal" language of the streets, Tsotsi stands for thug and we do not learn his real name for over half the film. Together with his fellow gang members, Butcher (Zenzo Ngqobe), Aap (Kenneth Nkose), and a teacher named Boston (Mothusi Magano), he roams the streets looking for robbery victims who often end up murdered. In one incident, the gang sticks an ice pick into the heart of a wealthy man on a Johannesburg subway for no reason other than that he was counting his money in public.
When Boston vomits after the killing and questions Tsotsi about his understanding of the word decency and asks about his real name, the stone-faced hoodlum beats him brutally but the questions linger in the back of his mind. Out of control, he steals a Mercedes from a rich woman (Nambitha Mpumlwana), then shoots her in the stomach when she resists. When he discovers the woman's infant son in the back of the car, he is forced to deal with the questions about decency raised by Boston. He takes the baby home in a shopping bag and tries to care for it, creating a makeshift diaper out of old newspapers and feeding it from a can of condensed milk. Confronted with the responsibility of having to care for the baby, Tsotsi follows a young woman Miriam (Terry Pheto) to her home, then orders her at gunpoint to breast-feed the infant.
She is a widow who ekes out a living sewing and selling mobiles created out of glass. Very gradually, Tsotsi is touched by her humanity and begins to recover his own. There is no epiphany, no single moment of transformation, only the gradual emergence of one man's conscience and his belated awareness of the reality of kindness and the sanctity of life. The presence of the infant is the trigger for him to look at his own life. He remembers when his mother (Sindi Shambule) was dying of AIDS and his father (Israel Makoe) in a fit of rage kicked his barking dog, breaking its back as Tsotsi, (played in flashbacks by Benny Moshe) ran away to live in a cluster of drainpipes with abandoned children.
Presley Chweneyagae delivers a luminous performance in his first role and his gradual redemption, shown mostly by gesture and facial expression, is totally convincing. His character is never idealized or romanticized and Hood carefully avoids the pitfalls of sentimentality. As the police search for the missing child, the baby's mother, paralyzed from the waist down, lies in a nearby hospital as Tsotsi returns to the baby's parents' home with his gang for a burglary. Events, however, take a surprising turn, leading to the film's deeply moving conclusion that left the audience frozen in their seats for five minutes after the final credits, with many faces full of tears.