Gavin Hood’s Academy Award-winning film gives off a powerful performance from its lead star as he plays a man whose moral compass soon gets the best of him.

Tsotsi is the leader of a street gang in the outskirts of Johannesburg. He spends his days robbing people and doing whatever it takes to survive, even if it means killing. However, one night, he decides to hijack a car. He finds the couple in the car and when the wife attempts to stop him, he shoots her. The husband runs and Tsotsi takes the car. Little does he know until it is too late, that there is a baby in the back seat.

Realizing what he had done, Tsotsi decides to bring the baby back to his home in the outskirts. As he forces a neighbor, Miriam, to help him care for the baby, the baby’s mother survives and soon enough, a sketch of Tsotsi is run in the newspapers. Tsotsi eventually does let Miriam take care of the baby on her own goodwill while he goes back to his life of crime just to help one of his gang members, Boston, live his dream of school. However, when the robbery meant to get the money for Boston goes awry, Tsotsi finds himself faced with the hardest decision he’s ever had to make.

Based on a novel by Athol Fugard, this story of a rebellious and emotionless teenager faced with a moral compass is a great watch. Adapted and directed by actor turned filmmaker Gavin Hood, this powerful film of an emotional road to redemption is highlighted by the performance of newcomer Presley Chweneyage in the titular role, which is short for the Afrikaner term tsotsitaal, which means “criminal” or “thug”. Of course, if this film was made prior to the 1990s, it would have been likely called Thug or Criminal, but keeping its original title makes a lot more sense here.

Chweneyage staves off a very powerful performance in the titular role of Tsotsi, who became what he became because of a terrible childhood and his running away to the outskirts of Johannesburg. When we first see the present Tsotsi, he is a gang leader with no morals, no emotions. He’s stone cold-faced and just as cold-hearted. Even with member Boston, played by Mothusi Magano, acting as the “moral compass” of the gang when he confronts him about fellow member Butcher killing their latest victim, Tsotsi couldn’t care less and even gets Boston beaten up at a local joint in the area.

What’s great is that the four members of the gang all have different personalities, and as conflicting as they may be, it is that diversity that makes things work. With Tsotsi as the stone-faced, cold-hearted leader and Boston the “moral compass”, we have Kenneth Nkosi’s Aap as the leader’s happy go lucky childhood bestie while Zenzo Ngkobe’s Butcher living up to his name as the most violent and loose cannon of the group. Tsotsi and Butcher may be similar in their nature, but soon enough, these two are bound to clash in a very pivotal moment of the film.

It is when we are introduced to Miriam, played by Terry Pheto, and the baby that Tsotsi inadvertently kidnaps that we slowly see him begin to change. It is because we see Tsotsi finding himself with no other option than to find out what to do when he puts himself in a situation he never imagined doing. What’s even more surprising is that he is willing to go back to his former life for the sake of helping a friend and that takes a lot to think about. While yes, Tsotsi does resort to robbery again, the mere fact he’s doing this to help Boston gives him a sense of caring, something in the first act we never saw at all. It is there where we see Tsotsi delving in his road to redemption, which leads to a very shocking moment as it was unexpected and well, the final moments may seem a bit predictable but is anything but.

Tsotsi deserves its Academy Award as this is a very powerful story about morals and redemption. Gavin Hood adapts this tale highlighted by the excellent performance of Presley Chweneyage. A must see!


Miramax presents a Tsotsi Films production in association with the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa, The National Film and Video Foundation of SA, and Moviworld. Director: Gavin Hood. Producer: Peter Fudakowski. Writer: Gavin Hood; based on the novel by Athol Fugard. Cinematography: Lance Gewer. Editing: Megan Gill.

Cast: Presley Chweneyage, Terry Pheto, Mothusi Magano, Kenneth Nkosi, Zenzo Ngkobe, Nambitha Mpumlwana, Rapulana Seiphemo, Ian Roberts, Jerry Mokofeng, Zola.