South African actor Presley Chweneyagae became an internationally recognized star when his title role in the compelling drama Tsotsi helped the film win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of 2005. The story tracked the personal redemption of a tough Johannesburg gang leader in a violent, post-apartheid era. New York Times reviewer Manohla Dargis noted the "charismatic newcomer … delivers a fine, sympathetic performance, and you root for the actor even when his character inspires unforgiving thoughts."
Born Under Apartheid
Chweneyagae, whose name is pronounced "Shwen-NAY-ah-hi-eh," was born in October of 1984 in North West Province, the modern name of a newly created unit that merged parts of Transvaal and Cape Province with Bophuthatswana, one of the former Bantustans, or black areas, of South Africa's apartheid era. Chweneyagae was at a time when his nation was an international pariah for its draconian statutes that separated a ruling white minority from the majority black population, and denied the latter nearly all political rights. South Africa's blacks were confined to the homelands or townships adjacent to major cities, where they lived in abysmal, near-medieval conditions, and were required to carry a pass, or identity card, at all times and show it on demand. Under apartheid, South African law also provided for detention without trial for an indefinite period. All of this changed when Chweneyagae was 10 years old, as the apartheid system was finally dismantled and South Africa's first free elections were held.
Chweneyagae was one of four children in his family, and his police-officer mother noticed that her son seemed to enjoy the roles he played in the religious dramas staged by their church. She decided to enroll him in acting classes. At the age of 14, he moved on to a drama school run by a well-known young playwright and stage director, Mpumelelo Paul Grootboom, and after several theater roles in his late teens he made his film debut in Tsotsi. The story was based on South African playwright Athol Fugard's only novel, and was updated for the screen by director Gavin Hood. Chweneyagae had auditioned for one of the supporting roles in the story of a violence-prone young South African, but Hood decided to cast the unknown actor as the lead instead.
Starred in Tsotsi
Chweneyagae's character calls himself "Tsotsi," a word that references a township patois called Tsotsi-Ttaal, which blends elements of Afrikaans, English, Zulu, Xhosa, Tswana and Sotho; the word "tsotsi" is also a term for a thug. Tsotsi's character and friends are denizens of Soweto, the black township attached to Johannesburg, South Africa's largest city, and in the post-apartheid, high-unemployment era they subsist by stealing and other criminal acts. After a particularly brutal subway robbery, one of Tsotsi's underlings makes a drunken comment that Tsotsi appears to have no remorse, which prompts another episode of brutal- ity. Fleeing the scene, Tsotsi finds himself in an affluent neighborhood, and comes upon a car with the engine running. Ignoring the pleas of the woman who had stepped out of it briefly, he takes off in it and shoots her as she clings to her vehicle as it speeds away.
Tsotsi realizes why the woman—a middle-class black South African—was so desperate when he finally spies the infant in its car seat. Ditching the luxury ride, he puts the baby in a shopping bag and furtively takes it back to his Soweto shanty. Realizing he cannot care for his new guest properly—an attempt to give the baby condensed milk results in an army of ants covering the infant—he seeks out a neighbor woman and single mother named Miriam (Terry Pheto) and demands that she nurse it. Soon, the newspapers have picked up on the story of the carjacking and the missing infant, and Chweneyagae's Tsotsi begins to realize that his long list of enemies have ample reason to turn him in to authorities. The plot and his decision to turn his life around are peppered with flashbacks that tell of his own harsh and tragic childhood.
Film Brought International Acclaim
Tsotsi caused a sensation when it premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival in the summer of 2005, followed by another acclaimed showing at the Toronto Film Festival in September. It was released in South Africa that December and then internationally in early 2006. Some critics termed the gangster-plus-baby formula an overly simplistic, melodramatic one, but even the traditionally independent-minded trade journal Variety commended both the movie and its star. "Caring for the child gradually repairs Tsotsi's broken spirit, a trajectory that could have been mawkish or unbelievable in lesser hands, but which Hood and particularly Chweneyagae make utterly convincing," asserted the paper's Leslie Felperin. The Sunday Times of London also weighed in favorably, with writer Cosmo Landesman conceding that the thug-turned-hero plot was "a little flimsy, as he gets in touch with feelings he has long suppressed. The idea is that what reforms him is his contact with humanity. But such is the performance of Chweneyagae—his ability to move from vicious killer to weeping child—that it all seems totally convincing."
Tsotsi made Chweneyagae a star in South Africa, and his standing was further boosted when Hood's movie won the 2006 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film of the past year. Later that year Chweneyagae traveled to Los Angeles for the Black Movie Awards, and was stunned to accept the honor for Outstanding Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role, besting contenders that included Denzel Washington and Cuba Gooding Jr. At the event, he was thrilled to meet so many African-American actors whose films he had watched all his life, including filmmaker Spike Lee, who sat next to him at the ceremony. Many of his idols greeted the newcomer with enthusiasm, saying they had seen Tsotsi and had been impressed.
Continued to Appear on Stage
Back in Johannesburg, Chweneyagae continued to work in theater and collaborated with Grootboom on a stage work that had a 2006 run at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh under the title Township Stories. Tsotsi and its Oscar win boosted the profile for South Africa's new, richly diverse cultural offerings on an international stage, Chweneyagae said in an interview with Alice Jones for the London Independent newspaper, which seemed to be propelling the post-apartheid cultural scene even further ahead. "People are starting to take work more seriously, be more creative. There's a different landscape now—the slums, kwaito music," referring to Johannesburg's hybrid of African beats with hip-hop and house music.
Chweneyagae even said that Tsotsi had altered his own perspective on life in South Africa, noting that he had been mugged just before filming started. "When you are a victim of crime, you do tend to think, ‘if I ever come face to face with that person, I'll kill them or do something to get back at them,’" he told Lexington Herald-Leader writer Rich Copley. "But after watching the film, I can see that people do not choose where they come from. They do not choose their financial background or their social background. It's just circumstances that force them to be what they are."
At a Glance …
Born Presley Oageng Chweneyagae on October 19, 1984, in North West Province, South Africa.
Career: Actor. Co-author of Relativity, a 2003 series of vignettes that had a run in Edinburgh, Scotland, as Township Stories.
Awards: American Black Film Festival, Black Movie Award for outstanding performance by an actor in a leading role, 2006, for Tsotsi.
Addresses: Agent-Moonyeenn Lee Associates, P.O. Box 41792, Craighall 2024, Johannesburg, South Africa.
Independent (London, England), August 22, 2006, p. 14.
Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, KY), April 21, 2006.
Mercury (South Africa), February 28, 2007, p. 4.
New York Times, February 24, 2006.
O, The Oprah Magazine, February 1, 2006, p. 42.
Observer (London, England), March 19, 2006, p. 14.
Star (South Africa), October 17, 2006, p. 5; January 25, 2007, p. 6.
Sunday Times (London, England), March 19, 2006, p. 12.
USA Today, February 24, 2006, p. 3E.
Variety, August 29, 2005, p. 71.
Balfour, Brad, "Tsotsi: An Interview with Pressley Chweneyagae," Blackfilm,www.blackfilm.com/20060217/features/chweneyagae.shtml (August 11, 2007).
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