Sunday, March 05, 2006

My Review of Tsotsi

Alright folks, I am posting here my thought on the South African Film Tsotsi. I just can't get over how poorly put-together I thought that it was. I mean, Shaka Zulu was a better picture, and it was made during apartheid! Okay, deep breath. Here's my review...Said

Review of Tsotsi

Written By Said Yenga Kakese wa Dibinga

Sunday, March 05, 2006

I respect filmmaker Gavins Hood drive to get Tsotsi to the screen. Only those in the film industry can understand a difficult task that is making a movie. Making a movie is difficult. Making a good movie is harder. Tsotsi isn’t a good movie.

As a filmgoer, I feel, along with a few other filmmakers here in Los Angeles that Tsotsi is both unoriginal and contradictory in its message of redemption. Tsotsi, “thug” in Tsotsi-tal is as stereotypical as the many products that Hollywood produces that portrays black males as criminals.

Acting wise, Tsotsi stays with one expression through the whole film.

Lets start at the beginning of this movie.

We’re on the train somewhere in the city where after we’ve seen earlier a gentleman buying a scarf, Tsotsi an is friend rob and murder him on a train.

Later at a restaurant in Soweto, Tsotsi’s friend questions him about his past, about his morals, saying that Tsotsi went too far in killing the man. I said to myself that here is where Tsotsi stands up and beats up his friend. No sooner had I finished that thought, sure enough, Tsotsi stands up and damn near murders his friend be pounding him in the face.

Tsotsi flees the restaurant for the hills of Soweto, where next we find Tsotsi in front of a really nice house with gated entrance. And moments later a BMW (maybe a Mercedes) pulls up and a black woman steps out of the car and speaks into the gate intercom asking (apparently her husband) to open th

Wait; are we still in South Africa? She’s not the house cleaner? She has to be the house cleaner; black people in South African don’t live like this in South Africa. That’s the thought I’m sure went through many of the people in attendance at this screening. That scene didn’t bother me because I like seeing Black people living well, but I digress.

Tsotsi runs across the street, jumps into the car, the women manages to open the door of the car, he shoots her in the chest, knocking her back into the street. She crawls to the car as Tsotsi speeds off.

Well this is obviously going to be a fresh new story.

Speeding down the highway, Tsotsi hears a baby crying in the backseat. He stops the car, looks to the backseat and sees a baby. The movie than goes as follows (maybe be a bit out of sequential order, but not too much)

He takes the baby home in a paper bag. Tsotsi’s home is about as big as the closet in the bedroom of the house form where Tsotsi stole the baby.

Tsotsi changes the babies diapers, replacing them with newspaper. Sometime later, Tsotsi sees a girl (Terry Pheto I believe, a strong actress) standing near his house with a baby strapped to her back. He asks his friend who she is and he tells her who she is, that the baby is hers. The woman used to sell jewelry that would hang from rope tied to a ceiling. However, since the death of the father of her baby, she hasn't made any new jewelry. Tsotsi and the girl stare at each other for a few moments before she walks off.

Later, with baby in hand, Tsotsi breaks into the woman’s home, and at gun point forces to woman ( who is breast feeding her own child) and demands that she breast feed the stolen child.

Visions of sexual abuse during slavery flashed through my mind. She puts her baby down and does as ordered. Initially, Tsotsi doesn’t even have the decency (then again, he did shoot the baby’s mother) to turn around to give the woman some privacy. He stares at her like she is a Fat-free milk machine.

South Africa submitted this film to the Academy awards for best foreign picture?

I digress.

When she is finished, Tsotsi takes the baby and leaves, but not before threatening to kill the women if she tells anyone.

Now we see the father in his hospital with his wife, and two detectives (one black, one white) who are questioning the husband. The husband has been asking questions and keeps getting the same answer from the Detectives, “we don’t know.” The father of the stolen child demands to know what the detectives do know.

The husband tells them, “My child better be in my wife’s bed when she regains consciousness.” That was one of the best lines in the movie.

Now this is what I want to see: a caring and loving father. Nevertheless, the audience is left wondering why does the father command such respect from the detectives? Especially the white one. Are we still in South Africa? Black people talk to white people like that? Where’s my passport.

Now back to the matter at hand.

We get flashes of Tsotsi’s oppressive childhood, requisite with Tsotsi’s mother dying of some illness (AIDS? They kept showing a poster “AIDS affects us all) and Tsotsi’s mentally abusive father who broke the back of the family dog.

So let me see if I understand this: we’re supposed to dislike the father because he crippled the dog and doesn’t care for his sick wife? Yet were supposed to care for Tsotsi, who not only forces one woman to force-feed a stolen child,

He also beat up his friend, shoots the mother, steals the car, keeps the baby, sees the mother again to force feed the child, keeps the baby in a shopping bag under his bed? This is the lead in the film?

Realizing that he has no food to feed the baby, Tsotsi goes BACK to the house with two of his friends to get the baby food. I guess they were criminal enough to think about robbing a grocery store to get the food. After arriving at the baby’s home of residence, Tsotsi and his friends watch the father pull up in a Mercedes Benz (or was it a BMW?) to the outside gate where Tsotsi had earlier shoot the mans wife.

Now, what is the story of the baby’s family? It would that be a great story to Tsotsi seeing the life he could have had. In the book that this movie is based on, Tsotsi lost his family to politics during apartheid. That would have been a good opportunity for social commentary? A great opportunity for South Africa to show the world that not all black people live in poverty. Gavin Hood, unfortunately, recently stated that poverty in South Africa isn’t about race, its about economics.

Uh, yeah, if you are a Black person in South Africa, and since the time of the Soweto uprising, you’ve been paid less then everyone else because of the color of your skin, you will be at the bottom of the economic ladder.

So Tsotsi and his friends run towards the father of the baby-in-the-shopping-bag and force him inside the house where they tie him up.

While Tsotsi stands in the bedroom deciding what food to buy, I mean steal; one of his friends finds a gun in another closet. The father of the baby manages to set off the house alarm, and just as Tsotsi’ friend is about to shoot the father; Tsotsi shoots his friend in the head and leaves him for dead as he and his other friend escapes the house.

Now back at the girl-who-is-forced to feed Tsotsi’s stolen bay at gun points house, Tsotsi has the audacity to stand in front of her house, and upon seeing her arrive late, he asks her, “Where have you been?” This brought a few chuckles from the viewing audience. Had that been some of the women I know, he would still be standing there as she walked into the house, slammed the door in his face and called the police.

Tsotsi and his friend give the car to a gang leader who in turn pays Tsotsi for the vehicle. Tsotsis’ friend wants to know when will Tsotsi kill him? Tsotsi is stunned by this question. His friend tells him, that Tsotsi beat one of their friends, and shot dead the other one. “When is it my turn?’ ask the friend.

Tsotsi gives him his cut of the money earned from selling the car and walks away.

Did I forget to tell you about the other friend, the one that Tsotsi beat up in the beginning of the film? I will in a moment because now we see that the mother of the stolen child helped compile a sketch of Tsotsi for the two detectives….the hunt is on…

Tsotsi, at one point in the film goes to see the friend that he had beat up at the beginning of the film. The friends laid up in the house with the bar owner, and the bar owner (a woman) giving him medical attention.

Tsotsi proceeds to try to convince the friend to come with him. Tsotsi asks, “who found you in the street when you didn’t know your name? Who found you on the street when you were drunk from beer that she sold you? Who was there for you my brother?

Had Gavin Hood had any sense of reality, he would have had Tsotsi’s friend look Tsotsi dead in the eyes with the one good eye that Tsotsi left him with and ask him, “Who put me in this situation in the first place?” His friend would then look away.

Tsotsi would have been standing there with one of the two expressions he shows in the whole film…

So Tsotsi’s friend decides to go stay at Tsotsi’s house. The Tsotsi and his friends, when finding out that the friend he beat up is short two credits to finish a school program, Tsotsi says that they will pay for his friend to finish the program.

Tsotsi didn’t have money to buy milk for the baby who is in this scene is under-the-bed-in-a-shopping-bag. Now Tsotsi is going to get his friend a scholarship to finish school?

Tsotsi doesn’t want his friend with him because he felt bad for what he did. No. Tsotsi wanted his friend there so that he can have a babysitter to watch the child who in this scene is under-the-bed-in-a-shopping-bag.

Now Tsotsi is back inside the girl-forced-to-feed-Tsotsi’-stolen-baby-at-gun-point’s house. He sits at the table in the kitchen like he’s her husband , and she makes him some dinner. After putting a plate of food in front of him, he begins to eat. She tells him that she tells him that she knows who the baby belongs too. Tsotsi tries to act tough. She tells him that “being nice to the baby won’t give its mother back her legs.”

Tsotsi pushes back the plate in horror, realizing that he has paralyzed the baby’s mother. When Tsotsi thought that he killed her, he showed no remorse. Now he finds out that the mothers paralyzed because he shot her in the chest, and he’s in terror?

Earlier in the movie, didn’t Tsotsi go back to the baby’s house to rob the father to get food for the baby? While he was there, did he ask how the baby’s mother was doing? Did he apologize for apparently killing her? Tsotsi did neither.

The bar owner has called the police, telling them that she knows where the baby is. The two detectives storm the house and find Tsotsis’ friend in bed, but no baby.

Now here’s something that most black males that has had the unfortunate situation of being questioned by two police officers, with one cop being white and the other black. The white cop will usually do all the talking; he’ll be the rational one. The black cop has to be a little harder. The black cop must prove that he is a police officer and not a thug like the one he is threatening.

You don't believe me? See John Singletons “Boys IN The Hood”, which was done years ago. Remember that scene where the black cop has Cuba Gooding Jr., hemlocked on the car hood, and Cuba says to the black cop, “I didn’t do anything.” The black cop places his gun at Cuba’s head and says to him, “You’re nothing but a nigger.” Cuba says nothing as a tear runs down Cuba’s face. Many black males have either gone through a similar scenario or know a black male that has. I have personally experienced an encounter like this.

Tsotsi has the same thing.

The two detectives burst into Tsotsi’s room. Guess who is the aggressive one and ready to shoot the man laying in bed? You guessed it, the short black cop. The white cop is speaks calmly. Its only because the bar owner that accompanied the detectives tells the black cop that’s not Tsotsi in the bed that the black cop doesn’t shoot Tsotsi’ friend.

So now Tsotsi, I’ll skip the required flashback to his youth and get to the part where now he, wearing a clean shirt and newly pressed Armani pants is now walking through the outskirts of Soweto: a place suffering the indignity of being the setting of this movie.” He is now apparently on as spiritual journey. Why shouldn’t he be at this point?

Tsotsi killed a guy on the train, beat his friend almost to death, steals a car, shoots and paralyzes the woman driving the car, keeps the baby he finds in the back-seat of the car, force a woman at gun point to breast feed the stolen baby, goes back to the baby’s’ house to steal food from the baby’s fathers house, shoots his friend that was going to shoot the baby’s father, then cons he’s friend (that he had almost killed earlier) to provide free child care, and in the process the friend almost gets himself shot by the black cop who thinks Tsotsi’s bed-ridden friend is lying about not knowing where Tsotsi is.

Did I miss something?

Now Tsotsi and the-baby-in-the-shopping bag walk through the area where Tsotsi used to live (in cement circular shelters). On his way there he sees some missionaries worshiping in the distance.

I turned to my friend and told her, “the-baby-in-the-shopping bag has already suffered enough. Don’t give the baby to the missionaries.”

What the baby is supposed to be raised like Moses and come back a free the babies of South Africa? I can see the now foully grown baby-in-a-shopping-bag-grows coming down form the hills of Cape Town carrying to large replicas of Baby Bottles that the Burning Pamper Bush told him was behind the rock to his left. On these Baby Bottle Templates are the Ten Commandments, with the first commandment saying, “Thou Shalt Not Keep baby in shopping bag under a bed with bread crumbs so that ants may eat baby”. Thankfully, he didn’t give the baby to the missionaries

Tsotsi then speaks to the kids he meets at his old hang-out. I’m serious when I write that these kids pulled at my heart strings. After telling the children that he used to live in one of the cement tubes he offers the-bay-in-the-shopping-bag o the children. I am not sure if he was serious or joking. The kids decline the offer. I’m surprised that Tsotsi didn’t pull his gun out and force them to take the baby.

Tsotsi’s salvation arrives in the form of the movie almost being over.

So here we are at the end of the movie that Gavin Hood recently proclaimed on NPR.ORG, that Tsotsi is going to be “one of the most important film to come of South Africa.”

Now we’re near the end of Tsotsi; both as a character and a movie. The baby’s father sits next to his wife who sits in bed. A South African police officer is stationed downstairs in the kitchen making Kenyan Tea.

The police officer sees Tsotsi standing outside the houses’ front gate as he holds the baby-in-the-shopping-bag. Apparently, the Gavin Hood ran out of things to say at this point because Tsotsi, who is the subject of a two-person manhunt just stands there. He doesn’t leave the bay at the gate, push the button and say in Tsoti-tal, “I left your baby at the front gate. Tsotsi stands there like the little kid in Close Encounter Of Third Kind when the little kid opened the door and saw the spaceships floating above the cornfield.

A true criminal, based on my research, would have left the baby at the gate with a pre-written note, and would have then ran away like he was a British colonial soldier who just received orders to go back to Shaka Zulu’s capital city “KwaBulawayo” (`the place of the murder').

So the cop in the kitchen calls the police, and he tells the father upstairs that Tsotsi is standing in front of the gate.

Now I must ask this question. When the two detectives went into Soweto to apprehend Tsotsi, didn’t they arrive in a sports utility truck? However, when the police arrive to arrest Tsotsi in front of the baby’s families home, they come with about 5 to 6 police cars, sirens wailing. Is this to say that there is more crime in the suburbs of South Africa? Well, looking at this movie you one could easily come to that conclusion because a car gets jacked in the suburbs, mother gets shot in the suburb’s, a boy gets shot in the head in the suburbs, and a guy gets stabbed to death on the train in the city. In the Soweto of the movie, the only violence that happened is Tsotsi almost beating his friend to death.

So Tsotsi leaves the bay and starts to walk, not run, walks away. He runs back to the baby when it begins to cry, where he takes it out of the bag and hold it. Do you know that feeling you get when you watch a horror movie and the college, and the teenager, upon hearing something thrown against the window, goes outside into the poring rain to investigate, when you know that there’s a killer waiting for them outside behind the sugarcane?

This film was submitted by South African to be the Best Film in the Foreign language category? That’s akin to submitting Soul Plane to the Oscars as a symbol of how far Black people have come in Hollywood.

I’m surprised that Tsotsi didn’t pull out his gun and force the baby to stop crying at gunpoint.

So the father and mother are downstairs, Tsotsi is surrounded by police, and don’t forget that black detective. Why did I bring him up? Because the father, via the white officer, orders all the police to lower their weapons. Everyone does as ordered accept the black detective, he hesitates, he is conflicted. About what, I don’t know.

Now let me juxtapose this scene in another movie: the US film “Set It Off”. If you had seen that film, you will remember that towards the end of the film, when one of the robbers is in a stand-off with the police, the white police officer orders everyone to lower their weapons. Everyone does except for the BLACK FEMALE COP STANDING BEHIND HIM. Oh no, she has an attitude, she puts her gun away with such reluctance its surprising she didn’t just shoot the suspect and say that her gun accidentally went off as she lowered it to put it in her holster. It’s happened.

Recently here in Los Angeles, and cop pulled over a speeding vehicle. The cop stood over the passenger who was outside of the car and on his knees with his hands up in the hair. The cop (this is on video and the audio is playing) orders the person to stand up. The person on his knees repeats repeatedly, “Okay, I’m standing up, I’m standing up”, and as he does so the cop shoots him three times! This is all caught on videotape. Now they want to do an investigation of what happened before and after the tape. The person who got shot lived, but you see my point?

Now, the black detective has lowered his gun, and Tsotsi stands there with tears streaming from his eyes. The father approaches Tsotsi and he hands over the baby. The father then slowly moves back behind his gate while Tsotsi gets on his knees.

I’m surprised that the director Gavin Hood, to milk this climax for all its worth, didn’t have the wheel-chair-bound mother go to Tsotsi and to get her baby.

Now let me tell you that after all Tsotsi has done, this is how it would happen. Tsotsi would have yelled, "Wait" as he reaches under shirt. The black cop would shoot Tsotsi. In slow motion Tsotsi would fall to the ground dead, landing on his side, then rolling onto his back. His life would pass before his eyes as he takes one last breath and dies. As the mother, and baby head back into her house, the cops approach Tsotsi and stand over his dead body.

In Tsotsi right hand isn’t a gun. Instead they find a little stuffed animal and a small piece of jewelry with a little string attached so that it can be hung over the baby’s crib. It’s a jewelry that the mother that Tsotsi forced to feed the stolen child used to make and sells for a living. The white cop picks the rope up, and watches the jewelry piece glitter under the lights of the street lights.

The black cop though, searches Tsotsi’s body for a gun, saying repeatedly, “I know he had a gun. I know he had a gun.”

If you never went to South Africa and saw this film, would you want to go? If this is the image that South African filmmakers want to portray to the world?

Well if the film wins the Oscar for Best Film in Foreign Language Movie, than its another accomplishment for Continental African cinema.

But at what cost?

Said Kakese Dibinga,

Said Yenga Kakese wa Dibinga, is a screenplay writer and free-lance editor based in Los Angeles California. He can be reached at


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