Hands Off, Westerner
Published on January 24th, 2012 | by Ryan Wells0
Running Time: 85 minutes.
After a recent conversation with Susan Weeks Coulter, chairwoman of the Global Film Initiative, whose Global Lens series is currently in full swing at MoMA before a cross-country tour, my mind—in a humanitarian, can-do state—wandered to recent cinema history. Where has cinema caused change to happen, to move the needle in the name of progress? When was the last time this occurred—not a polite discussion, but real social and political change?
I found myself coming back to these prodding questions upon a recent viewing Lionel Rogosin’s second feature “Come Back, Africa” (1959). The film, which aesthetically works as a blend of pioneer documentarian Robert Flaherty and Italian neorealist Vittorio De Sica, exposes the jaw-dropping racism and social injustice that has victimized black South Africans under the apartheid government since its enactment in 1948. It follows the story of Zacharia Mgabi (real name, a non-actor), a rural man from Zululand on the North coast, who is transported to Johannesburg to work in the local goldmines. After his work discharge, the film follows Zacharia’s numerous attempts at employment, each ending poorly with vicious dismissal. (He’s feeding a wife and children whom he rarely sees because of the strenuous hours and rigid work structure he’s dealt.)
“Come Back, Africa” also looks widely at shifting urban design and life in Johannesburg. These shaky, poetic images illustrate a city that’s both booming economically with commerce (on several occasions we see blue-collar workers—essentially all natives—racing through the streets, pouring out of metro trains with a subtle drum beat layered around them) and sagging from moral deterioration. Indeed, the Johannesburg skyline, in some instances, resembles a miniature Manhattan. We see large-scale buildings and construction sites, cinemas (we see a ticket line for the atomic horror film “Fiend without a Face”), glorious parks, wide lane roads (shot beautifully by documentary veterans Ernst Artaria and Emil Knebel). Yet the inhabitants of so many of these images are really citizens of Sophiatown, a heavily populated all-black neighborhood that was torn down by the government a year after the filming wrapped. The residents of Sophiatown are the true backbone of the city–they give it life, according to “Come Back, Africa.”
While Rogosin admittedly knew little about the intricate political conditions in South Africa before arriving to shoot (he originally told the Department of Interior he was working on a musical on the sounds of South Africa), he nevertheless understood that it was a very contemporary issue that lacked a media outlet that would get it global recognition in exposing the brutality and injustice taking place due to segregationist extremism and xenophobia.
Rogosin met Bloke Modisane who was heavily involved in Drum, a leading anti-apartheid magazine. The meeting would prove fruitful for both: Modisane would connect Rogosin with Lewis Nkosi who co-wrote the script with him; not to mention several of the Drum circle–as well as other folks affiliated with the African National Congress, which has close political affiliations with the publication–would make cameos in “Come Back, Africa.” (The white actors in the film were all activists themselves, including Myrtle Berman, who plays a shrieking woman who fires Zacharia for, amongst other things, tossing out her mushroom soup.)
Another cameo is by the musician Miriam Makeba, who was known locally but not internationally. Though Harry Belafonte is usually given credit for discovering Makeba, it was “Come Back, Africa” and Rogosin’s efforts that really let audiences hear the talent that was Makeba. Prior to the film’s screening at the Venice Film Festival in 1959, where it won the Critics’ Award, Rogosin organized a visa for Makeba to attend the festival, as he felt her appearance would help promote the film and simultaneously draw attention to the budding chanteuse (soon after she appeared on Broadway and also sang on The Steve Allen Show). Many supporters of Rogosin felt that her bitterness towards the filmmaker in discovering her (a credit she gave to Belafonte) caused resentment and hurt for Rogosin. (Makeba’s reasoning was never fully fleshed out outside of an early press interview in which she claimed that the man who brought her over was not “nice to her,” although gossip also suggested that she was romantically linked to Belafonte for a spell.)
After its success at Venice, “Come Back, Africa” struggled to find a U.S. distributor and exhibitor for the premier. Stylistically, the film wasn’t groundbreaking enough that it would scare away the general public. It was the same year that John Cassavetes’s debut “Shadows” appeared on the scene—a film steeped in the cinéma vérité tradition Rogosin also adopted. (“The 400 Blows,” “Black Orpheus” and “Hiroshima, Mon Amour” were also released that year.) Yet thematically, let’s be honest, “Come Back, Africa” is a degree more controversial than revisionist Greek mythology even if the leads were Brazilian. And while it was critically well received in the U.S., the subject matter would no doubt make many a moviegoer blush considering its significant focus on segregation in South Africa, an issue certainly still in full swing in 1959 America. To see poverty and squalor abroad is disheartening and provokes nervous empathy, but stone cold racism between whites and blacks at the time was a topic that was divisive in this country to say the least. (Rogosin went on to premiere the film himself at Bleecker Street Cinema, a theater he co-owned and operated, in January 1960.)
2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the African National Congress, a political party many of the film’s characters—and the filmmakers—were supporters of. Seeing Rogosin’s “Come Back, Africa,” a cry for international amnesty for native South Africans, in this historical context only emphasizes the relevance of these kinds of films, especially in the current state of selfish complacency that lingers in our society. Rogosin didn’t claim to solve apartheid, but he did expose it to the world. Take notes, viewers.