Tsotsi and Cry, the Beloved Country
By: Justin Marshall
CMC350L Dystopia in Global Cinema
In this paper, I perform a comparative analysis of two South African films, Tsotsi (2006) and Cry, the Beloved Country (1995). I compare the beginning and endings of each film along with a supplementary scene from each. I compare the aesthetic elements such as the setting, music, and camera angles along with cultural elements like apartheid and discrimination. It is important to also realize that Tsotsi is set in post-apartheid South Africa while Cry, the Beloved Country is set during its very beginnings. With that said, there are many dystopic themes shared throughout the films that connect with Africa, but the central characters all go through a change under dystopic circumstances and redeem their past misdeeds in hopes for a utopic future.
Both films that I will be textually and socially comparing, Tsotsi (2006) and Cry, the Beloved Country (1995), are based on novels written during the apartheid era of South Africa. They were both adapted into films but Tsotsi differs from the novel in that is set during post-apartheid South Africa. Tsosti centers on the character David “Tsotsi” and his criminal lifestyle which spurs him into his journey to redeem himself by returning an infant he finds. Cry, the Beloved Country is set during the very beginnings of apartheid and follows two characters Kumalo, a black priest, and Jarvis, a white landowner. Cry, the Beloved Country follows the connections between the two as Kumalo’s son killed Jarvis’s son. Both films have similar plots involving past misdeeds all while under a discriminatory setting, but after comparatively analyzing the films, it is implied that the characters undergo a redemptive change- even after the relatively ambiguous endings.
The opening scene of the film Tsotsi (1 minute 33 seconds to 4 minutes 5 seconds) gives a clear picture of what post-apartheid South Africa is really like. It is not a wondrous, happy landscape that is exemplified in Cry, the Beloved Country, but a broken down and dystopic background that sets the stage for the action. The entire scene is at dusk, which gives an imminent feeling of trouble and crime. When the gang leaves their house, they walk outside into a grimy, run-down, shantytown on the outskirts of Johannesburg. The way it is shot feels very similar to District 9, but instead of oppressed aliens living there, various gangs inhabit the ungovernmented local. Even though this is post-apartheid South Africa, the town feels like there is still much animosity, oppression, and illegal activities associated with the inhabitants. During the scene and throughout the film, the characters in Tsotsi’s gang all seem to represent various personalities that inhabit Tsotsi himself. Tsotsi is portrayed in this scene as unemotional and crude, as his facial expression displays an internal anger and his emotional reaction to the other gang is offensive as well. The gang associate in the leopard shirt is often extremely violent, while the large character is often portrayed as sentimental, and the character with the beer is often portrayed as the emotional center of the gang, as he reacts indifferently to the murders the gang performs and constantly drinks for an escape. Tsotsi though combines many of these emotions, and with that, leads these gang members to a train station to do their nightly criminal activity. The scene shifts as the camera pans out of the slum area and then cuts to a shot of Johannesburg. This is one of the only shots of the city in the film, and the space that fills the shot is dilapidated trains and tracks that displays South Africa as a predominately run-down country. Even though there are many westernized aspects of the city, the film continuously makes the area seem third-world and as a result, predominately dystopic. The music that runs through the scene is a sung by the South African rapper Zola. The edgy nature of the song matches the look and feel of the film perfectly. It is not epic or bombastic like the score for Cry, the Beloved Country; it is gritty and fits the dystopic undertones of this scene. The final social/textual element of this scene is near the end. A very wide angled shot of the train station shows the people as very small, in relation to the massive billboard above the people, which says: “We are all affected by HIV and AIDS”1 and below that: “Stand together against discrimination.” This contextually alludes to a metaphorical and literal system of discrimination that affects “everyone” in the area. The film is not about the HIV/AIDS problems in Africa and not really about discrimination either. The billboard is there to remind us of the unfortunate sociopolitical elements of Africa, and at the same time not overtly making a film based on the message behind the billboard. Cry the Beloved Country though has more themes related with discrimination, and as a result, feels more like a political film than a redemptive film, yet still retains some redemption for the characters. The scene ends as Tsotsi and his gang arrives in the train to rob a bystander, the violent gang member with the leopard shirt kills him as Tsotsi shockingly reacts to the brutal nature of the killing. Tsotsi may be a violent person, but never does he actually kill an innocent person, only when trying to protect someone from the same gang associate that killed the man on the train.
Lindiwe Dovey’s article about Tsotsi gives an interesting take on the meaning behind the film in her own textual analysis. She argues whether Tsotsi represents a cinematic voice for South Africans or for commercial ideologies. She sides with how the film reaches for a cinematic voice. I agree with this, as the issues she presents, such as AIDS and sexual violence2 are very subtle and should not be seen as the driving forces of the film.
The opening scene of Cry, The Beloved Country (45 seconds to 3 minutes 25 seconds) shows the past setting in which the film takes place. South Africa has just started apartheid but even with that, the textual elements of the scene initially portrays this Africa as a largely utopic place to be. From the first shot of the film, the tone and themes of the film are grounded. The camera is looking up to the cross that is covering the sun which dissolves into a shot of clouds, which makes religion an important theme to the film, which motivates the actions of the main character of the film, priest Stephen Kumalo. In Tsotsi, the first shot is of a grimy interior of gang members gambling. However, in Cry the Beloved Country, The entire opening sequence is beautifully shot, and after the title card that says “Natal, South Africa – 1946,” it is hard to believe that this is South Africa in apartheid. Kumalo narrates the first couple of shots and marvels over the beauty of Natal. A child with a letter is then seen running to deliver a message to Kumalo. All while the majestic score of the films swells into a beautiful auditory experience. However, the score then decrescendos as an unknown white man on a brown3 horse stops in front of the black child. The camera initially is above the child, looking down on her, as she gives a puzzled expression. Then the camera shifts under the white man, which signifies his dominance as a white man over the black child. The scene actually slows down to make a point to this aspect. A beautifully utopic scene is interrupted by the white man, and the true social reality of South Africa is exemplified. After they pass, the child runs happily again as the music crescendos to its initially uplifting state. The scene comes to an end after the child delivers the letter to Kumalo in his house in Natal. The town appears to be under no oppressive effects of apartheid, but that element changes for Kumalo as he searches for his son in Johannesburg.
At first glance, the settings are vastly different, even though they take place in South Africa. If Tsotsi were a sequel to Cry, the Beloved Country, then it would be easy to see how a beautiful nation like South Africa could have turned into a dystopic landscape, even after apartheid ended. The themes associated with Cry, the Beloved Country are more political in nature than Tsotsi, which is more of a personal journey of a singular character than a tale about an entire country. In Harold R. Collins’s article, he describes that the novel for Cry, the Beloved Country dramatizes racial problems in terms of human feelings. The film does the same, as it is primarily character driven, along with Tsotsi. All three characters in the films change from their past ideals into more positive and constructive principles which signify a positive change for the future of South Africa at the time.
A major turning point for the character Tsotsi is the scene in which he carjacks a woman, shoots her, and finds a baby in the backseat (11 minutes 6 seconds to 15 minutes 10 seconds). During the first part of the scene, Tsotsi runs at nighttime through the rain and has vivid flashbacks of the night he ran away from his abusive relationship with his father as a child. Both scenes occur while under heavy rain. Tsotsi changed metaphorically after running away from his father as a child and changed after running away from his gang in the present, which is further exemplified by the rain, which commonly signifies change in someone or something. Even after Tsotsi’s violent quick draw reaction, though, the baby becomes Tsotsi’s main call to action for his personal quest of redemption. Without the carjacking, Tsotsi would have never found this emotional connection, and would have probably ended up in a worse scenario. The neighborhood in which Tsotsi is located appears fairly middle-high class. However, the scene is shot in the dark and rain, which dampens the utopic quality of this oasis away from the slums where Tsotsi lives. A woman exits the BMW after arriving home and she is actually black, which breaks the cultural connotation of white and middle/high class connecting together. If Tsotsi were to shoot a white woman and take her baby, the cultural connotations for western viewers would have pinned Tsotsi as racist or prejudiced against whites. The fact the woman was black is important because it allows the film to not stray from its predominate message of redemption, just like the HIV billboard in the opening scene. After shooting the mother and driving away aimlessly, Tsotsi discovers a crying infant in the back seat of the car. A full moon is shown as Tsotsi exits the vehicle, which again signifies a change and a change for Tsotsi. The change is finalized by Tsotsi’s decision to keep and protect the infant, which he uses as his main ticket for redemption and a life away from crime.
The other central character to the film Cry, the Beloved Country is Jarvis, the white landowner the child passed by in the beginning of the film. He goes through the most radical character transformation in the film, more so than Kumalo. Based off his encounter with the child earlier on, he appears to discriminate against black people, and a major turning point of the film occurs when he finds out his son dies from a gunshot. This happened to be committed by Kumalo’s son, who is black. It is easy to say that this event would make Jarvis despise blacks even more, but it lead the way for his pigeonholed ideals to be dissolved and be more diversified. Both films feature redemption for characters that starts from an act of violence. That is important because many historical events in South Africa have been spurred with violence and ended with an assumed positive change for the country, like apartheid for example. The scene shows Jarvis outside in a utopic green hill landscape working outdoors (29 minutes to 33 minutes 9 seconds). An officer arrives to inform him of his son’s death. Jarvis is initially lit by the natural sun as he jokes with the officer, but after he steps past the shadow, he is informed of the death. This initially utopic scene is juxtaposed with harsh reality of the news. This is similar to the first scene of the film in which a beautiful scene is turned dystopic. Collins describes again that the novel makes us understand how it feels to be a South African today, even though the article was written in the 1950’s, it is still true in the context of Tsotsi.
Much of this film in general presents Africa in its natural, cultural roots, which is important because Tsotsi portrays Africa as a more modern, westernized, gang riddled area. Tsotsi is easy to label as predominately dystopic and Cry, the Beloved Country as mostly utopic based mostly from initial settings. But many plot elements overlap each other that create this mixed world that doesn’t seem to have a clearly defined progressive future. The endings though definitely give a clearer indication of the future of these characters in the context of the uncertain future of South Africa.
Tsotsi eventually returns to the very spot that incited his path of redemption, the house where he shot the mother (1 hour 24 minutes to end). The mother became paralyzed from the gunshot. Tsotsi seems to have a personal connection with the theme of disability that occurs within the film. He witnessed his father paralyze his dog, then personally met and helped a paralyzed homeless man in the train station. This personal connection with disability apparently allows Tsotsi to give up the baby that started his journey. As the police surround Tsotsi, the father of the baby tells them to lower their weapons pointed at Tsotsi. This is important because not only is it safer for the baby, but it allows the father to identify with Tsotsi in a non-violent context that Tsotsi is often neglected of. The bars that separate the father and Tsotsi signify that in the end, Tsotsi will likely be locked up for a very long time. This presents an initially dystopic future for Tsotsi. Textually analyzing the scene however presents a different scenario as Tsotsi’s physical appearance signifies a redeemed, utopic future. He is wearing a white shirt, which symbolizes purity. Before, Tsotsi usually wore dark trench coats that made him appear more villainous. The last bit has a white man signaling for Tsotsi to put his hands above his ahead. For the officer, it means that he has Tsotsi arrested. But based on how Tsotsi is standing- his body is facing the parents- he is not only surrendering to the armed police officers, but he is putting his arms up to show how he has nothing left for himself but his clean slate and redeemed persona. The music featured is not as edgy as the opening scene, and sounds more uplifting in relation with the first scene. The final shot shows Tsotsi facing away from the camera with it slightly below him, making him bigger and gives a “riding off into the sunset” quality because the viewer does not get to see his final reaction or the events that will eventually transpire for the character. The ending gives better indication toward the character of Tsotsi than the actual changes for South Africa. The film skims over other important social aspects of Africa that Cry, the Beloved Country seems focuses on more. The events that emerged in this film are insignificant on a more broad level for Africa, but on a more personal level, it shows that just about anyone can change no matter the circumstances.
The final scene of Cry the Beloved Country covers the entire spectrum of dystopia and utopia, so it is hard to pin what the future holds for the main characters (1 hour 36 minutes to end). The setting again initially features the beautiful landscape, with the stunning orchestral score supplementing the action. Jarvis encounters Kumalo as he is hiking up the grassy mountain. Both have been changed by the shooting ordeal involving both of their sons. Jarvis is so moved by Kumalo and his honesty throughout the film that he donates money for Kumalo’s church, signifying a utopic future and positive relationships between the two characters. If the film were to end after the encounter between the two, it would be a gorgeously utopic ending. However, Kumalo’s son is set to be hung after shooting incident which had much to do with his race. Kumalo continues his climb up the mountain alone to pray for the impending death of his son. The music becomes more depressing and intense as the scenes of Kumalo and his son overlap as they walk to their final locations of the film. After the son is hung, the camera spins around Kumalo in slow motion from a helicopter shot. Kumalo eventually is represented as this small, insignificant force in relation to the vast mountains he overlooks. This is similar to how the actions of one person are too small to change the outcome of his son’s death and more broadly, the era of apartheid in South Africa. The ending of this film is not a subtle reminder of the eventual history of apartheid; this is only the beginning of a long painful process for blacks in South Africa. Isabel Balsiero’s article about the film industry in South Africa is important because she believes that the films of South Africa should always have a message that should stick with the viewer particularly in the area of race. The films give different themes about race, but what the films do best is give a lasting personal message to the viewer, no matter the themes or time in which South Africa is presented in.
Tsotsi can be seen as a more character based observation while Cry, the Beloved Country incorporates more historical elements in its arguments about apartheid and discrimination. Comparing the events of post-apartheid Tsotsi to Cry, the Beloved Country gives clear context to the setting and cultural aspects of Tsotsi. These films are very different in their approaches of “real” South Africa, but at the same time they are very similar in their character and story components. They both imply that while it may take decades for positive societal change in South Africa, it is still possible on a personal level to forgive and be forgiven, no matter what one’s race or background is.
Isabel Balseiro and Ntongela Masilela (eds), To Change Reels: Film and Film Culture in South Africa (Detroit, Wayne State University Press, 2003), xii +272 pp.
Lindiwe Dovey, Redeeming Features: From “Tsotsi” (1980) to “Tsotsi” (2006), Journal of African Culture Studies, vol. 19, No.2 (Dec., 2007), pp.143-164.
Harold R. Collins, “Cry, the Beloved Country” and the Broken Tribe, College English, Vol 14, No. 7 (April., 1953), pp. 379-385.
On my honor I have not given, nor received, nor witnessed any unauthorized assistance on this work.