Come Back, Africa
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Lionel Rogosin is not a familiar name to most moviegoers, but the extraordinary features he directed in the 1950s are well worth knowing about. The earlier of the two, On the Bowery (1956), chronicles three days in the life of a young laborer who arrives in a lower Manhattan skid row with a wad of money and a thirst for alcohol. Made in what we'd now call a docudrama format, it's a fact-fiction hybrid that illustrious filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and John Cassavetes have hailed as a masterpiece. Rogosin himself, however, regarded it just as a training exercise for the daunting job of directing Come Back, Africa, a moving and exciting 1959 drama about the oppression suffered by black and mixed-race people under apartheid, South Africa's white-imposed segregation system.
Come Back, Africa was filmed on the sly in Sophiatown, a nonwhite ghetto just outside Johannesburg, the nation's most populous city. At the time when Rogosin started work, the apartheid regime was about halfway through the process of systematically destroying the Sophiatown district, forcibly removing all of the black, mixed-race, Indian, and Chinese inhabitants so the area could be razed, cheaply rebuilt, and renamed Triumf, a bitterly ironic name if ever there was one. As he had done with On the Bowery a few years earlier, Rogosin started production by spending extended time in the area where he planned to photograph the film. There he met and consulted with local activists, artists, and writers of different racial and social backgrounds. The idea was to find creative collaborators who could offer story suggestions, develop realistic dialogue, and play characters very much like themselves.
He ended up working closely on the screenplay with William Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, journalists who were affiliated with Drum, a progressive magazine with a mostly black readership. To keep the authorities at bay, Rogosin and company pretended they were making a travelogue that would attract tourists by showing off the wonders of the district. Anticipating the ostensible makers of phony films in movies like Ben Affleck's Argo (2012) and Barry Levinson's Wag the Dog (1997), the team had to make up dummy scripts and shoot bogus musical numbers so they'd have material to show if their credentials came under suspicion. Plenty of mendacity was involved, but it all served the interests of an urgent human-rights cause.
The story centers on Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi), a Zulu worker who travels from a village in the countryside to the gold mines outside Johannesburg, hoping to get work so he can feed his family. He finds a job in the mines, but it quickly fizzles out. Still determined to succeed, he goes to the city and tries a variety of low-level occupations there, ranging from parking-garage assistant to houseboy for an impossible-to-please white woman. Disaster strikes when he gets arrested for violating the complicated pass laws designed to keep nonwhites from living, traveling, or even showing their faces where they want. After a stretch in jail, Zachariah goes back home and discovers that Vinah (Vinah Makeba), his wife, has been murdered by a sociopathic black man who had tangled with him earlier.
Come Back, Africa builds suspense and emotion at an escalating pace, climaxing in a full-throated cry of rage over the injustices undergone by individuals and groups in a nation where oppression is propped up by the full force of the law. The cast of racially mixed actors includes white enemies of apartheid whose portrayals of unlikable, unsympathetic Afrikaners are based on their own observations of people and behaviors in their country, which they hope this movie can help to reform. Their presence is important, but the movie's most powerful energies come from its depiction of black people waging a daily struggle to understand their irrational environment and survive to fight another day, no matter how much malice and mistrust rise up to confront them.
Judged by Hollywood standards, the acting and technical quality of Come Back, Africa sometimes seems very rough. This is a result of the shoestring budget Rogosin had to work with, and it also reflects the challenges of shooting the picture in a semi-covert way, knowing that hostilities would erupt if the wrong people found out its true intentions. The movie has been criticized more seriously for depicting its white characters as a nonstop parade of racists, and for concluding the story with black-on-black violence. Rogosin knew exactly what he was doing, though. He allows the white-racist characters to stop just short of becoming caricatures, making them effective targets for the righteous anger provoked by their actions and attitudes. The black-on-black violence, meanwhile, is clear evidence of Rogosin's refusal to sentimentalize the victims of apartheid. Two of the things a brutal system will generate, he lets us know, are brutal people and brutal acts.
As entertainment, the best moments of Come Back, Africa are vividly alive. In an engrossing scene that gives the film its centerpiece, Zachariah sits in a shebeen, which is a sort of underground clubhouse and drinking spot, during a sociopolitical bull session that includes Nkosi, the sophisticated journalist, and Can Themba, a widely known left-wing radical, along with the gifted musician and antiapartheid militant Miriam Makeba, who sings two songs with truly blissful sweetness. Come Back, Africa helped launch Makeba on her journey to becoming the first African superstar on the world-music scene. Rogosin helped her obtain a visa to attend the film's premiere at the Venice International Film Festival, where it won the Italian Film Critics prize. Then he and singer Harry Belafonte brought her to England and the United States, but when she tried to attend her mother's funeral in 1960 she learned that her South African passport had been revoked. Makeba and Rogosin subsequently fell out, but she remained an international star and human-rights advocate for years to come, finally returning to Johannesburg in 1991, when apartheid was breathing its last.
Rogosin saw filmmaking as a way to comment on critical issues like pacifism, fascism, and apartheid. In the early 1960s he created New York's adventurous Bleecker Street Cinema, which opened with the premiere of Come Back, Africa and remained an important venue for serious film. He also helped establish the New American Cinema Group along with Ken Jacobs, Jonas Mekas, Robert Downey, and others, but independent filmmakers faced many obstacles, and Rogosin completed only ten shorts and features between 1957 and 1974, his too-brief period of active filmmaking. His work makes up in quality what it lacks in quantity, though. Cassavetes once praised Rogosin as "probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time," which is quite a compliment even though "semidocumentary" would be more accurate, and Scorsese has called Come Back, Africa a work of "terrible beauty." It is one of his greatest works, and no one interested in thoughtful movies should even think of missing it.
Director: Lionel Rogosin
Producer: Lionel Rogosin
Screenplay: Lionel Rogosin with Lewis Nkosi and William Modisane
Cinematographer: Ernst Artaria, Emil Knebel
Film Editing: Carl Lerner
Cast: Zacharia Mgabi (Zachariah), Vinah Makeba (Vinah), Martha (Auntie), George Malybye (George), Miriam Makeba (Miriam), Morris Hugh (Morris), Myrtle Berman (Myrtle), Rams (Rams), Lewis Nkosi (Lewis), Bloke Modisane (Bloke), Can Themba (Can), Hazel Futa (Hazel).
by David Sterritt