Barely past his teens, David has already reached the end of his rope. As a cold-hearted gangster lording over a Johannesburg shantytown called "The Shacks," he's learned that life is not just hard, it's cheap—his own especially. His given name has long been replaced by a more fitting moniker: Tsotsi, which in South African street language literally means "thug" or "gangster." But the stoic front he's adapted since running away from home as a youngster merely masks his inner turmoil. His fight-or-die existence is a blur of harassing crippled beggars and assaulting old men for handfuls of cash ... until one night changes everything.
In the process of carjacking a wealthy woman, Tsotsi shoots her and drives off. Moments later, he hears a "reward" he wasn't expecting: a baby whimpering in the backseat, which causes him to crash the car. And while he gathers his loot and prepares to leave the infant behind, he's forced to answer the question: Just how expendable is one innocent life?
Tsotsi resists the temptation to leave the child to (potentially) die, and then, to the best of his (extremely feeble) ability, he tries to take care of the little guy ... or at least finds others who can do the job. Obviously, the best course of action for Tsotsi would have been to immediately take the baby to the authorities who would return him to his family. So the positivity derived from watching Tsotsi's love and nurturing spirit develop doesn't lie in him taking possession of the boy, but rather in the progression his character experiences after doing so.
A young widow named Miriam helps Tsotsi on this journey. Throughout her involvement with the situation, she's primarily concerned with the baby's safety and well-being. She's also willing to confront Tsotsi about him returning the child to his mother ("You can't give back her legs, but you must give back her son"). In addition, her slices of optimism deeply stir the young man.
Tsotsi's educated friend, Boston, also helps to serve as the thug's conscience and brings to the forefront the issue of decency, which he equates with self-respect. After Tsotsi seriously injures his buddy and the two temporarily part ways, Tsotsi not only apologizes and takes care of Boston but also offers to provide a way for him to finish his education and pursue his dream to be a teacher. Through Boston's example, the movie displays the tragic consequences of alcoholism.
After threatening a man's life and putting him to shame, Tsotsi returns to make amends. He does the same with others, too. A kidnapped man verbally stands up to Tsotsi and his gang, telling them that they can take all his possessions, but that he must attend to his hospitalized wife. Later, in a heated moment, the man trusts Tsotsi to do the right thing.
When Tsotsi demands that a crippled beggar get up and walk, the man asks if he thinks he's Jesus Christ.
Miriam's breast is exposed as she twice nurses the baby. (The first time, she's humiliated as Tsotsi holds her at gunpoint and watches her nurse with an awkward grin.) An associate of Tsotsi's makes a crude comment to Miriam about her nursing. A couple of women wear cleavage-revealing tops.
Violence is Tsotsi's stock in trade. It's all he knows. He shoots a woman from point-blank range. He also pummels Boston with a series of punches and kicks, then spits on him. (Boston's bloodied, and later swollen, face gets screen time.) A member of Tsotsi's gang senselessly stabs an innocent subway passenger with an ice pick. (The utensil is later used to threaten someone they've kidnapped.) A young man is shot offscreen, but his blood splatters on the face of a bystander. Later, we see the victim lying in a pool of blood.
Boston violently breaks a bottle, then purposefully cuts his arm with it, drawing blood. Multiple people are held at gunpoint in tense scenes, and several people make death threats. A car smashes into a street sign, and another almost hits a paraplegic. A story is told about a man kicking a dog and breaking the canine's back. The scene is later shown, though we only hear the grueling sounds and see the dog in pain.
Crude or Profane Language
The f-word appears in subtitles or is spoken around 30 times (including use by a kid). The s-word appears almost 10 times. Jesus' name is misused half-a-dozen times. A handful of milder profanities also pop up. The movie's soundtrack, while mostly in the ghetto Tsotsi-Taal dialect, contains several profanities (some of which are obvious to English speakers). Tsotsi makes an obscene gesture.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Tsotsi's friends and associates smoke and drink throughout the film, giving beer and wine loads of screen time and mentions. Stories are told of Boston spending all his money on beer and becoming an alcoholic. A verbally abusive father figure guzzles from a bottle in front of a younger Tsotsi.
Other Negative Elements
Tsotsi isn't afraid to put the grimy lifestyle of shantytown gangsters on full display. As a result, it features image after image of cold-blooded thuggery. And whatever "good" Tsotsi does to redeem himself, it's important to keep in mind the questionable, usually immoral, means taken to make amends.
Then there's the issue of how Tsotsi handles his unexpected baby visitor. The fact that he's ignorant of and unaccustomed to the responsibility of taking care of an infant doesn't fully mitigate his (initially) abusive actions. He carries the boy around in a bag and "stores" him under his bed. Diapers come in the form of newspapers. Baby's first meal away from his mother? Milk literally licked off a half-open can. Worse still, Tsotsi seemingly forgets about his new company and leaves him at his shack, under his bed, in a paper bag for an entire day. When he returns, ants are crawling all over the baby's milk-stained face.
Gambling is shown and mentioned frequently, primarily playing dice and betting on horses. Tsotsi's friends raid the home of an affluent couple. Tsotsi continually lies to others to cover up his possession of the baby and how he got him.
It's easy to see why critics are hailing Tsotsi as one of the greatest films to ever come out of Africa (it was made in South Africa), and why it won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film of the Year. The stirring tale of a Soweto orphan-turned-thug is tightly scripted, efficiently directed and deftly acted—especially noteworthy considering its lead, Presley Chweneyagae, is making his film debut and had no formal training. Even those averse to following subtitles will find themselves quickly drawn into this character-driven story.
As is the case with so many "tales from the 'hood" stories, personal redemption takes center stage here. And to the credit of both screenwriter/director Gavin Hood and author Athol Fugard (who wrote the novel on which the movie is based), it's presented with a subtlety and artistry that will likely have moviegoers pondering the plot twists hours and days after leaving the theater. Unfortunately, they'll also be remembering the thick layer of gritty realism that coats that thought-provoking message. The senseless violence, profuse use of alcohol and abundant profanity are all portrayed true to ghetto life in R-rated fashion.
After Tsotsi seems unaffected by his cohorts brutally killing an old man, Boston tells him, "You know you went too far tonight." Despite its glimmering accolades, discerning viewers will think the same thing of this movie.