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Book: Body Talk and Cultural Identity in the African World

Chapter: 3. Dressed-to-Kill: Don Mattera’s Sophiatown

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.24090


The costuming of gangster films of the 1940’s had a profound effect on disaffected youth in the townships of South Africa. In Sophiatown, a designated “black spot” for demolition by the apartheid regime, thugs known as tsotsis would pack the popular bioscopes in order to emulate the latest film noir fashion portrayed by Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson.A case in point is the film The Street with No Name (1948) which had a following among tsotsis whose secret male language and behavior was motivated by criminal activity. The film starred Richard Widmark as a crook named Stiles under investigation by the FBI. Widmark’s thug became all the rage as tsotsis dressed to kill in double-breasted suits, colorful ties, and wide-brimmed hats. Comparing film of the Hollywood gangster genre and photographs of residents of Sophiatown, the chapter traces a social phenomenon that still lingers in the townships and shows the ways in which the donning of gangster stereotypic dress gave brief identity to a generation of neglected young men whose lives had already been obliterated by a racist system “rotten with injustice.”

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