Worlds Apart

Melissa Anderson on Come Back, Africa

Lionel Rogosin, Come Back, Africa, 1959, stills from a black-and-white film in 35 mm, 85 minutes. Left: Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi). Right: Miriam Makeba.

BY THE TIME Lionel Rogosin began filming Come Back, Africa, his unsparing look at life under apartheid, in Johannesburg in the summer of 1958, South Africa’s brutal system of racial segregation had been law for ten years. The film’s US premiere, on April 4, 1960, came just two weeks after the Sharpeville Massacre in South Africa, in which police opened fire at blacks protesting the highly restrictive pass laws, killing sixty-nine people. (Come Back, Africa opened at New York’s Bleecker Street Cinema, which Rogosin founded expressly to debut the film after unsuccessful bids to find willing venues or distributors.) Five decades later, and almost twenty years after apartheid’s dismantling, Come Back, Africa remains a vital document of a hideous regime.

Rogosin’s second film, much like his first, the landmark On the Bowery (1957), a nonjudgmental portrait of Lower East Side drunks (their skid row now replaced by luxe hotels), combines vérité footage with staged scenes, using nonprofessional actors. (In a 1987 interview, Rogosin explained, “[W]hat I was aiming for was to fuse . . . [Robert] Flaherty’s poetic films and the fictional narratives of the neorealists.”) Setting out to, as the opening credits state, “portray the true conditions of life in South Africa,” Rogosin devised numerous subterfuges while filming Come Back, Africa, sometimes telling the ever-vigilant authorities that he was making a travelogue for a tourism board, at others that he was shooting a musical.

Writing the script with Lewis Nkosi and William Modisane (both, journalists at the time for Drum, an antiapartheid magazine, have small roles in the film), Rogosin structures his story around Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi, whom the director found in a bus line). A refugee in tattered shirts and blazers from the famine-stricken KwaZulu homeland in the nation’s southeast, Zacharia comes to Johannesburg in desperate search of a job. Without a work permit, he is unable to secure employment in the gold mines; he is quickly dismissed by racist employers (or bosses too timid to confront delusional, racist accusations) at the series of jobs he does manage to obtain: house servant, garage employee, hotel waiter.

Beyond chronicling the injustices Zacharia faces, Come Back, Africa captures Sophiatown, a Jo’burg ghetto and black cultural hub where much of the movie was shot, on the eve of its all-too-real destruction. (Soon after filming, Sophiatown was razed and rebuilt as a whites-only enclave.) It is here that Zacharia will seek out job advice at the shebeen, a bare-bones establishment for drinking and kibitzing. Toward the film’s end, the newcomer will stop by the watering hole to listen avidly to political discussions (“I don’t understand, but I like it”), the debate interrupted by the magical appearance of Miriam Makeba (a Sophiatown resident), practically unknown at the time, who sings two songs, then exits; her exuberant cameo helps explain why she was later dubbed “the girl with the smile in her voice.” Come Back, Africa is filled not only with the sounds of Makeba’s mellifluous vocals but also those of the bands of boys in short pants and newsboy caps playing penny whistles and the street buskers plinking out “(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear.” Rogosin’s ruse that he was making a musical turned out to be partly true; yet no audio in Come Back, Africa is as piercing—or unshakable—as the keening heard in the closing minutes.

Come Back, Africa plays January 27 through February 2 at Film Forum.