Analyse how our preconceptions of a character were challenged through narrative structure
What is it that makes a person evil? Is it their thoughts, their upbringing, or merely the roll of the dice. In the phycological thriller Tsotsi (2005), Gavin Hood, director and writer, follows the titular character, Tsotsi - the leader of his gang - through his normal day-to-day life before accidentally stealing a baby and struggling to provide for it. Hood explores what makes a person evil by developing negative preconceptions of Tsotsi as we witness his gang commit their first murder, challenging these preconceptions as we relive parts of Tsotsi’s childhood, before driving home just how wrong we originally were in our preconceptions as Hood reveals the change in Tsotsi’s mindset by the end of the film.
During the opening of the film, Hood provokes us to build negative preconceptions of Tsotsi as we view a normal day in his life, before witnessing his first murder. Hood opens the film with a montage showing the mise-en-scene of Tsotsi’s shack. Hood uses this montage to introduce key symbols/motifs/themes used within the rest of the film such as hands reaching out, the roll of the dice, gambling, weapons, alcohol, tobacco and weed and money. During the montage, we see a close up of a hand, wearing a thick silver ring on the middle finger, tapping a weapon and wearing a leather jacket. Heavy jewellery is often found on morally bereft or arrogant men in other films, and is also commonly worn by pirates, who we have preconceptions of as ‘bad’ people. This combined with the connections we have between leather jackets and gangs within our own society, provoking us to build negative preconceptions of Tsotsi as living in a ‘bad’ neighbourhood and being morally bereft. These preconceptions are furthered as we see Tsotsi and his gang hunt for money and commit their first murder. Not only does the way Hood flicks between a close up shot of Tsotsi’s dark eyes, Tsotsi’s POV and the other gang members remind us how the other gang members are differential towards Tsotsi, but it also demonstrates how Tsotsi uses his eyes to track his prey, placing him as the predator. The latter is also reinforced when Hood uses a non-diegetic percussion sound, which sounds like a rattle snake, as Tsotsi stalks the unnamed man. Hood builds the tension we feel, as the rattle is used as a warning, furthering our negative preconceptions so that we distance ourselves from the immoral, repulsive character of Tsotsi. Hood intends for us to develop these preconceptions in order for Tsotsi’s life to become irreconcilable to our own. He prompts us to realise that these preconceptions we create of Tsotsi also mirror our view of those unprivileged in our own societies, as we are quick to judge people off the few moments of their lives that we see and to label them as being ‘lesser’ or outright evil.
As the film progresses, Hood plants the seeds of doubt in our negative preconceptions as we relive parts of Tsotsi’s life. Hood uses many flashbacks throughout the film in order to reveal what influenced his younger self to become who he currently is, allowing us to begin to emphasise with what has caused what we perceive to be his ‘evilness’. In one such flashback, Tsotsi’s father, visibly drunk, orders him away from his mother (who is hinted at having HIV/AIDS) scaring Tsotsi outside. The low camera angle reflects this power Tsotsi’s father has over him, making us also feel that his father is looming over us, causing us to feel the scaredness Tsotsi also felt. Their dog attempts to protect him, but instead gets kicked by his father, presumably breaking its back, before Tsotsi runs away. Not only does this flashback demonstrate how Tsotsi has learnt from his father to hide behind a mask of no emotions, aside from anger, to protect himself, but it aids us in understanding the story behind earlier moments and conflicts in the film. Earlier in the film, Tsotsi sits emotionless as Boston probes into Tsotsi’s life in order to get a reaction out of him, questioning him about his real name, his mother, his father, while Tsotsi sits emotionlessly, ignoring any questions about topics Tsotsi has buried deep. It is not until Boston, having cut his arm with a broken alcohol bottle and using the physical blood as a metaphor for Tsotsi hurting emotionally, asks Tsotsi, “Jesus, Tsotsi! A dog? What about a dog?”, that he reacts, in anger, punching and kicking Boston unrestrainedly, before running away. As he does so, the music changes from diegetic music being played at Soekie’s place, to Kwaito music, which has an irregular beat, representing the panic and the sudden release of emotions. Hood also uses a lightning and heavy rain in pathetic fallacy to demonstrate this. As Tsotsi runs, we see flashbacks to him running as a young child, dressed in a white shirt and woollen jersey, as opposed to his leather jacket, which we later know to be running away, scared, from his father, leaving behind the dog. This choice in narrative structure demonstrates how Boston bringing up the dog reminded Tsotsi of the past he could never leave behind as well as acknowledging that, although he doesn’t show it, Tsotsi is also affected by the murder of the big man, in the same way he was about the injury to the dog. In revealing that he is not emotionless, as he is originally portrayed, Hood draws us into Tsotsi’s life and poor childhood, helping us to understand in some ways his life could be similar to our own, yet the way he has reacted in response is very different to what we would do with our first-world morals. By conflicting our negative preconceptions with an understanding of how Tsotsi became this way, we find ourselves unable to view him with such scorn as we originally did, instead empathising with him, able to put ourselves in his position. This suggests to us that perhaps those who we scorn in our own lives, who are underprivileged or have committed crime, may not inherently be evil, but just may have responded badly to an already poor roll of the dice.
At the ending of the film, Hood drives home just how wrong we were about our preconceptions of Tsotsi’s character as he returns the baby to the wealthy Dube family. Hood demonstrates this through the use of contrast. Tsotsi walks up the centre of the fully-lit road to the house, as opposed to creeping through the shadows and trees as he did earlier, wears a loose-fitting white shirt, as opposed to his leather jacket, and the use of choral music, as opposed to the harsh Kwaito music. The well-lit road and white shirt symbolise the way Tsotsi acts to redeem himself through the decency of returning the child, knowing he will likely be persecuted in response, through their positive, redemptive connotations. In this final scene, Tsotsi is also compared to a stray dog. When the police arrive, sirens blazing and guns trained on him, Tsotsi reacts as a stray dog would if someone were to run up to it screaming – he tries to run, and failing that, tenses, preparing for what might happen. However, when the father asks the police to lower their guns, and speaks to Tsotsi calmly and quietly, Tsotsi doesn’t run, but stands and gives over the baby. This further demonstrates how the way a person is treated can have a huge impact on the way a person responds to their roll of the dice. In a close up of Tsotsi and the baby, seeing Tsotsi interact with the child while crying, demonstrates the way he allowed himself to make a connection with one another human, without feeling as though it could harm him, furthering how our assumptions of Tsotsi were wrong. Tsotsi’s returning of the baby he named David after himself, also reflects how he wants this baby to grow up loved and cared, with its parents, as that is what he longed for as a child. Seeing the Dube’s back together as a family, Tsotsi finds the strength to face what he has done, surrendering and raising his hands above his head, when he would usually bolt, turning against his roll of the dice to , doing the decent thing rather than just doing what is easy. This is also evidenced by the way he picked up the baby when it began to cry and calmed it back down again, rather than just leaving the baby by the gate as he originally said he would do. By Tsotsi going against the preconceptions we originally built, Hood prompts us to wonder whether the preconceptions we build around others lives are perhaps also wrong and warns us against treating someone different based on these preconceptions.
Gavin Hood successfully uses the narrative structure of the psychological thriller, Tsotsi, to challenge our hastily-formed preconceptions of Tsotsi, developing a message relevant not only in the Soweto, but widely around the world. In challenging these preconceptions and seeing how we were wrong about those we formed, Hood intends for us to question the preconceptions we naturally form about others, and whether they really reflect a persons character, and also warns us not to treat anyone different because of these preconceptions. He suggests that those we scorn for being lesser than ourselves aren’t necessarily lesser, but may purely have had a worse off roll of the dice, reminding us that how we respond what happens in our lives is what mahtters most.