The residue of imperialism hangs over modern day Johannesburg, portrayed in stark and unforgiving detail by director Gavin Hood in his crime drama “Tsotsi.” The film, which won Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, among other awards, follows the life of a young black man hoping to make ends meet in post-Apartheid South Africa. The titular character, whose name means thug, initially seems like a common mugger. But, like many of the sympathetic criminals that are familiar to Western culture, Tsotsi’s troubled youth, revealed through flashbacks, explains the seeming heartlessness we find in him as a young man.

The film’s opening shot, a subway station filled with black adolescents, could easily be in New York City. Hip hop music and the calls of panhandlers provide a backdrop as Tsotsi, whose name is actually David, and his cohorts Boston, Butcher and Morris plan their attacks. But the difference becomes clear: these young men are living in a comparatively lawless society. The police force is only a significant presence for the very wealthy, and Hood makes a powerful commentary on the nature of crime in a society where there is no fear of retribution.

Hood portrays the violence of life on the streets with a cool eye. A far cry from the stylized martial arts that came en vogue with “The Matrix,” in Tsotsi’s world you can get stabbed on the subway with a sharpened screw driver, no club mix music will be played, you will not be able to fight back and no one will notice when you are left to die. “Tsotsi” does not hide the horrors of life on the fringes of a troubled society; while the film may briefly exalt the bandits, it is clear that no one is innocent and that no one is safe.

Carefully interwoven flashbacks show that young David was denied a choice, and that he resorted to crime not out of sadistic or sociopathic tendencies, but rather in a struggle to survive and counter the twists of fate that are beyond his control. Perhaps Hood’s greatest achievement is his ability to show that, while we may judge Tsotsi and his comrades from the safety of our comfortable American movie theaters, it is only out of our ignorance or naiveté that we could see them as inherently evil people.

Tsotsi kills a woman to steal a car he does not know how to drive, but panics when confronted by the squirming infant that he finds in the BMW’s back seat. With the addition of the baby, Tsotsi’s stiff upper lip begins to crumble, revealing the tough gangster for who he is: a twenty-something who has learned to separate himself from reality in order to avoid confronting the desperation of his present state. He brings the baby home in a shopping bag with the other items he stole from the car and stashes it under his bed. When the child begins to cry the next morning, Tsotsi is faced with a dilemma straight out of “Three Men and a Baby.” He feeds it canned coconut milk, diapers it with old newspapers and finally resorts to silly dancing in order to quell the infant’s sobs. But when the other members of Tsotsi’s gang arrive at the door, we are reminded that this unlikely foster father was implicated in two murders the night before and that a child raised in this ramshackle colony of huts will likely grow into a similar fate. It is hard to deny the love and compassion that swell in Tsotsi’s eyes when he holds the writhing infant and names it David, after himself, but by stealing him from his middle class parents and cozy nursery, he threatens to deny the child any hope of a successful future.

The characters’ individual stories take place under the larger arc of imperialism, apartheid and AIDS: a crippled man Tsotsi harasses worked in a mine before his back was broken in an accident; the paper bag Tsotsi uses to tote the infant David around is emblazoned with the words “Expect More.” The disease functions as a silent character, hanging over the others’ heads, like the billboard blaring “We are all affected by HIV/AIDS” in the Johannesburg subway station.

The plot of a troubled gangster (with a well-buried heart of gold) who finds himself with an adorable child on his hands might make it in Hollywood, and might win a casted Tom Hanks an Oscar nomination. But the mean streets and depravity of Johannesburg turn the film from a cheap situation comedy into a profound tragedy with well-crafted psychological portraits, and searing ambience, that humanize even the most dastardly criminals.