"Tsotsi"- Is Free Will Possible Even in Cycle of Global Gang Violence?

By James J Murtagh, M.D.

 Warning: movie spoiler alert. If you have not seen "Tsotsi", consider seeing the film before reading further.

 [Note:James Murtagh has spent 20 years as an Intensive Care Unit physician at a major Southeast hospital. ]

At first, the South African film "Tsotsi", looks like re-shoot of the Brazilian masterpiece, the "City of God." The City of God, in turn, is "The Godfather" on speed. It reminded me of Goodfellows, Sopranos, and Scarface. Horrible circumstances, leading to unavoidable crime, leading to bloodbaths.

        But then I realized. "Tsotsi" is the answer to all of these films, not the extension.

        Tsotsi, like "City of God," shows ruthless killers born to crushing poverty. Children are abandoned, growing up in pipes and in garbage dumps. No hope exists, so escalating butchery builds to a fevered pitch of kinetic violence until a final orgy of death appears inevitable.

        Except in "Tsotsi," where the bath of blood is stopped, and the gangland leader reforms, transformed by the innocence of a child. The hardened criminal surrenders himself, arms spread wide and high, as if he were forming a kind of cross, tears of remorse and redemption streaming down his cheeks. The power of the heart and his empathy for a helpless child reformed even one of the most hardened killers in film history.

        Free will entering into an International gangland story is shocking and exhilarating.  In all other mobster movie in memory, the Killers, Godfathers and Macbeths were pawns of fate. Fate tricks each gangster-leader into believing he is  supremely powerful and wise, an Uberman above the laws of good or evil, the Master of the Universe, holding all power and all the puppet strings. But ultimately, each realized he was deluded. In fact, each supposed villain puppet master was in fact a himself only a puppet, dangling ironically on the strings of the corrupt violent system. Those that lived by the gun die by the gun, and those who put heads on pikes end up with their own head on a pike.

        Macbeth and Brutus showed how conditions turn good men into villains, as surely as fate turned Darth Vader from the good side to the evil side of the force. But for the grace of God, in the theme of these stories, any of us could be born or made into killing machines.

        Vito Corleone's criminal fate appeared sealed as he stepped as an orphan refugee child,  into the shadow of the statute of liberty, stripped of his name, and thrown friendless into quarantine. Later, fate made his son Michael reluctantly into the next criminal genius. Neither father or son apologized, as crime appeared as the least bad choice open. Even the police were conniving with rival gangs to finish both Corleones off. Who could the Corleones have turned, even if they wanted to go straight? Not the police. Not the media. Not the church.

        "The woman made me do it," was Adam's excuse. "The serpent made me do it" Eve replied. "I am not my brother's keeper," Cain continued. "The weird sisters made me," continued Macbeth. Venus "forced" Paris abduct Helen, so Agemmenon murdered daughter Iphigenia, to obtain good winds so to sack Troy. The Greeks rumbled with the Trojans, the Sharks with the Jets. And so on, and so on, and so on.

        But Tsotsi breaks this mold. Beginning as a killer more heartless than Luca Brasi, Tsotsi discovers his heart is bigger than violence. Unlike any other mob movie character, (possible excepting Samuel Jackson's "Pulp Fiction" character), Tsotsi actually breaks through his environment, and takes responsibility, to find redemption.

        His change of heart changes others. Almost every character in "Tsotsi" grows more empathetic from the beginning to the end of the film. The rich woman that Tsotsi shoots in the carjacking/abduction grows from demanding vengeance into a more caring empathetic mother. Her hard husband likewise appears to soften after Tsotsi unexpectedly spares his life. Several of Tsotsi's friends and neighbors show surprising inner character. Even brutal police appear to develop a hint of empathy. Though, it is clear that Tsotsi accepts he will soon suffer justly for his crime.

        At the end of the film, the stark fact of brutalizing poverty remains. The chasm between powerful and poor  remains. The impossibility of real justice in world ghettos remains. AIDs remains. But even so, there is hope.

        Did Tsotsi manage to transform through true free will, or did the infant trigger a reforming response Tsotsi had no choice but obey? Did Tsotsi really break free of puppet strings, or is he just controlled by new, less visible puppet strings? Did some empathy gene or chemical trigger? Was it the hand of God?

        Whether our fates are governed by the stars, or by ourselves, or if there is more than is dreamt of in our philosophies, if this is a brave new world, if we are the stuff of dreams, infinite and noble in reason, or whether we are a base nature on whom nurture can never stick, we do not know. We do know at present that the struggle for existence is becoming even more nasty, brutish and short, and the rule of law, even here in America, is breaking down.

        Conditions breeding global "Cities of God" exponentially increase with world population and depleting resources. This is expected to result in massive increases in poverty, hunger and cold, and in gang struggles for existence.

        In this darkness, basic humanity appears in Tsotsi. Innocence still matters, even to the profoundly guilty. By accepting his responsibility despite his environment, Tsotsi shows the rest of us that we too will have the possibility of redemption, even if the darkness of global gangs and ghettos descend on us.