The purpose of this essay is to assess and discuss the ways in which the visual elements used in the film Tsotsi amplified the difference between the wealthy and the poor in South Africa.


The film follows the life of a young South African gangster named Tsotsi who lives by the principles of violence in order to make ends meet for himself and his family. His gang is notorious for roaming the streets of Johannesburg and attacking people. However, Tsotsi’s heinous life of crime comes crashing before his eyes when he hijacks one particular car. The owner of the car refuses to give her car up without a fight which results in Tsotsi casually shooting her. After stealing the car and driving off, he discovers a baby in the backseat and thereafter, we witness a positive change (positive character arc) in Tsotsi’s behaviour from being rude and dangerous to become a caring man who takes the child home and cares for it in every way possible. The discovery of the child was used as a pivotal factor for Tsotsi’ change.



The film’s main theme is ‘crime’, possibly caused by the disparity in social classes leading to unfair treatment or unequal schooling and working opportunities.

It also explores a second theme, rich vs. poor, pushed forward through the aid of visual elements such as lighting, camera shots and movement, aesthetics and the actor’s performance.

We explore these in detail below:



The lighting in the film was used as a visual element to highlight the difference between the wealthy and the poor. The film used both low key lighting and high key lighting. The main source for the High key lighting was the sun which brought out the colour of the environment and was mostly used to drive attention to how lively and beautiful the suburban neighbourhoods Tsotsi and his gang terrorized were.

On the other hand, whenever the poor neighbourhoods were shown in the film, low key lighting was used and was always darker and harsher; it was a direct visual representation of the environment they lived in which was cold and yielded no possibilities of a brighter tomorrow.



The visuals in terms of shots translated a message to the audience by implying that Tsotsi and the people in his neighbourhood had little as compared to the wealthy people.

An establishing shot was used to show the setting or the location of the scenes, for example, the establishing shot in the poor areas revealed that the residents lived in tubes right in the middle of a field. These shots were tighter and closed in to insinuate the freedom residents were denied due to their shortcomings. This particular scene went on to show the harsh living environment when it started raining and the residents only had one blanket to share as opposed to the wealthy people that lived in a 6 bedroom house with only 2 residents occupying one bedroom.

The wide shots were mostly used in such scenes to show the full difference of the two neighbourhoods, for example, one scene showed the residents from the poor neighbourhood in a long queue for water while others socialized. A similar shot of the opposite neighbourhood strongly illuminated that the wealthy residents rarely left their houses (unless they need to) as their street was always empty.

Also strategically used was drone shots to further highlight the living conditions of the two social classes. When the drone shot viewed the wealthy neighbourhood there were lights and tall buildings indicating that the residents could all afford electricity and lived in nice and luxurious homes, the aerial drone shot of the poor neighbourhood however captured the crowded homes with only a few specks of lighting. This gave the viewers the impression that only a few people could afford to buy electricity.



Another visual element that distinguished the wealthy from the poor was the aesthetics of the film. The characters from the poor neighbourhood wore baggy clothing, leather jackets, torn clothes: this choice of clothing was because they could not afford expensive clothes and so they were able to conceal their weapons with ease. They rarely had their hair nicely done or combed, this gave the audience the impression that the residents of the township did not care about their physical appearance. The residents of the suburban area on the other hand looked their best in quality and tight-fitting clothing. This was a perfect example of how they perceived themselves and their wealth amongst other people.

In terms of the production design, the interior of Tsotsi’s house was cluttered for instance, and consequently, no space for him to accommodate the baby. The interior design of the house from which the baby was stolen was a posh luxurious home. The visible difference was easily compared through the quality and appearance of the houses from the two different social classes.

In conclusion, a writer’s core mandate is to change the mindsets of those around them by either changing their perception about an issue or opening their eyes to what they never knew existed before. The film Tsotsi successfully used various mediums to highlight an array of underlying societal issues which we as viewers may be aware of but choose to ignore.


Film Essay is an offshoot of Albantsho’s monthly film activity; we pick a classic or milestone movie, watch and share an in-depth Thought essay written by any one of our fine writers. You too can partake in the film activity and join the conversation.  Join on Slack or FB Group