Come Back, Africa (1959)
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The singer Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) is featured in the film, and as a result of her performance she managed to escape South Africa and came to the U.S. where she began a distinguished career. Producer Lionel Rogosin (1924-2000) helped her escape, supported her, and established the Bleecker Street Cinema in 1960 where "Come Back Africa" and other "art" shows had a chance to be displayed, influencing the careers of many future film makers.
I lived in South Africa from 1977 to 1980 and can attest to many of the scenes you will see, which take place in 1959 but which were still present when I was there. By the time I lived there life was less pleasant for many than it was at the time of this filming, if you can imagine that.
This is a unique film and one that can be watched mostly for its historical importance, and as a representation of a genre that is under represented.
There are many films about life in South Africa. Among the best are "Shaka Zulu" (1986) and "Zulu" (1964) for the colonial days, "Cry the Beloved Country" (1951) and "A Dry White Season" (1989) for the in between years, "Inside" (1996) and "Mandela and de Klerk" (1997) for the more recent vista.
The draconian measures of Apartheid make it almost impossible to kindle any real hope for upward mobility. Zacharia is allowed only enough freedom to work in the mines and return home. He casts about for a scent of viable opportunities, but the racist climate of South Africa seems to nullify even the consideration of capitalizing on advantages that might come to a person of color. Zacharia works at several jobs, but always seems to somehow violate some kind of social convention that ranks him back among the outcasts.
There is a scene where he meets with his peers to discuss informally what kind of options exist to make things better in their lives. There is an improvised feeling about this discussion and it is here where the cinema verite' technique flickers and shines intermittently to reveal flashes of urban character. When Miriam Makeba makes her entrance upon the scene, her sense of inner richness lightens to some degree the mood of futility that hovers over the conversation between friends. I have read this film of ethnofiction was a contributing factor to her escaping South Africa with the help of filmmaker Lionel Rogosin to begin her singing career in America and around the world.
Zacharia attempts to create some semblance of family life by bringing his wife to Sophiatown. Vinah suggests to Zacharia that she too find employment, but this proves to be problematic as well, and in the end simply hastens them downward into a spiral of tragedy. Under the umbrella of poverty we watch the characters sing and dance and sigh in protest to the suffocating conditions of apartheid racism.
While the ending is abrupt and simply repeats that old familiar refrain of white privilege making up the rules that sponsors and patronizes the impoverishment of the indigenous communities it displaces, this neo-realistic approach gives the subject a fresh and compelling point of view. Since many of the actors are actually playing versions of themselves living a life that they intimately know, the film has an authority that is rooted in reality more than the opinion or the imagination of any particular individual. This gives one the feeling that what the participants are living and feeling and thinking and saying is the real deal and is not a substitute for the truth.