Milestone Films is back with a second set of director Lionel Rogosin’s films, featuring Come Back, Africa, h is 1959 drama/documentary of life in apartheid South Africa. It’s now been 20 years since the end of the predominantly white National Party’s rule and for many here in the United States, Neill Blomkamp’s sci-fi film District 9 is as close to the reality of the old black townships in Cape Town as they have ever seen. Come Back, Africa is a bracing corrective for that ignorance. This is the way it was and it’s not science fiction.
In the 1950s, Rogosin had been making films of people who were lost and forgotten such as On The Bowery, about dead-end bums and alcoholic derelicts in New York City and the short film Out, about Hungarians fleeing the 1956 uprising and living in an Austrian refugee camp. In 1958, Rogosin next set his sights on the institutionalized segregation of South Africa.
The common denominator in all three films is what Hannah Arendt would have called “the stateless person,” someone who Is outside of society’s normal protection and benefits. In the case of On the Bowery, it is a result of bad luck and alcohol; in Out, it is political intolerance; and in Come Back, Africa, it is racial discrimination.
But in Come Back, Africa there is a problem: could Rogosin, who came from the profoundly racist culture of 1950s America, still do justice to the racist situation in South Africa? I think the answer is a qualified “yes.” Maybe it was the year he spent living in Cape Town where he established contacts in the black as well as the antiapartheid white communities. Perhaps the real the wonder is that he did as good a job as he did despite his and his crew’s having to work undercover. Yet seen from the vantage point of 2014, the racial awkwardness of some of the film stands out more than the remarkably humane filmmaking Rogosin accomplished. Come Back, Africa may have been years ahead of its time, yet it is still an artifact of the past.
As with Bowery, we watch one man (Zachria Makeba) being ground down by an uncaring system that has the cards stacked against him. The cast are all “real” people who created their own dialog. Makeba was spotted on the street while others in the cast came from the contra-apartheid magazine Drum. My guess is that in real life Makeba probably wouldn’t have been hanging out with the more artistically minded Drum people and there are times when he seems to be thinking “who are these guys?” But Makeba makes a strong contribution to the film and I couldn’t help but think of Barkhad Abdi’s role in Captain Phillips. As noted in An American in Sophiatown (a documentary about the making of Come Back, Africa included in this set), the final scene of Makeba’s hopeless rage was too real and indeed too much for the filmmakers to bear. This is not acting and Makeba is showing genuine anguish.
Making a more-than-cameo appearance is the singer Miriam Makeba before she left South Africa to become an internationally recognized performer. In fact, it was Lionel Rosogin who arranged for Makeba to leave South Africa in 1959 and go to the Venice Film Festival where Come Back, Africa was being shown.
In the end, Come Back, Africa is simply not as good a film as On the Bowery. Perhaps the magnitude of the apartheid problem proved to be more than Rogosin (or anyone else) could express in one short film. Nevertheless, seen as a historical document, Come Back, Africa is priceless and Milestone’s presentation of the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna’s restoration is a gem. Not only is this rare and heartbreaking footage, it was shot with the same intelligent eye and artistry that makes On the Bowery brilliant.
Come Back Africa, The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume II is a two disk set that also includes:
- Martin Scorsese Introduction
- An American In Sophiatown, The Making of Come Back Africa, Directors: Michael Rogosin and Lloyd Ross
- Lionel Rogosin talks about Come Back Africa, Radio Interview, 1978
- Come Back, Africa theatrical trailer
- Black Roots (not credited but still apparently a Rosogin project) 1970. (American Blacks telling their stories in scenes similar to those in Come Back, Africa)
- Bitter Sweet Stories. Director: Michael Rogosin. (Lionel’s son goes back to interview some of the people featured in Black Roots 30+ years later.)
- Have You Seen Drum Recently? Director: Jürgen Schadeberg (A look back at the people behind “Drum” magazine in the 1950’s. This was an unexpected treat and a perfect upbeat parting shot for the two disk set.)