Every film is somehow circumscribed, if not defined, by the conditions of its making, and of course by the conditions of its makers. A big part of what makes Lionel Ragosin's 1959 Come Back, Africa so engaging and fascinating has to do with the multiple factors that circumscribe it. Rogosin, a white American with a passion for social issues, had made his first picture, 1956's On The Bowery, at least in part as a kind of rehearsal/training ground for this subsequent picture. Bowery is a rich, raw, and sometimes almost semingly deliberately clumsy exploration of alcoholic misery that has precedents in both Brecht and early Rossellini. Come Back, Africa would use a similar strategy under far more risky conditions. For after scouting their locations and performers, Rogosin had to wrangle official permissions to film in Johannesburg, and he certainly wouldn't get it from the government by telling it the truth about what he wanted to do. So he pitched it as a musical documentary about "happy natives." And truth to tell, there's an awful lot of music in the finished film, all of it wonderful—a favorite bit has a group of buskers on a sidewalk playing Elvis's "Teddy Bear" in an exuberant township-inflected version. But it sure isn't about "happy natives." Rogosin and company concocted a narrative concerning one particularly unlucky black from Zululand. Zacharia is bounced from job to job, hassled by racist white employers, menacing township gang leaders, papers-demanding cops, and more. He goes from mines to domestic work to destitution trying to hold his small family together. He finds occasional solace in late-night drinking and talk sessions with angry township artists and intellectuals, and it's during one of these evenings that a young woman named Miriam drops by and favors the guys with a couple of songs.
Miriam is, of course, Miriam Makeba, and it's bracing and a little surprising to see her in this context, before she was elevated to the position of the musical conscience of South Africa. While ever a wonderful, illuminating, and engaging performer, here she has an earthiness and a a sensuality that was somewhat subsumed, in subsequent years, by the message of her music. Because the segments of Come Back, Africa that treated the film's actual theme had to be shot in secret, and because its "actors" were in substantial part not performers at all, there's a kind of provisional feel to the acting in the film that both underscores the film's didactic (and I mean that word in the best sense) mission and also adds to its emotional power—you get the feeling that pretty much everyone involved is acting on behalf of his or her own life. Which of course is the case.
And that's even more awe-inspiring, when you think about it, than the film's time-capsule value, which is considerable. Rogosin's individual images of dusty Soweto and the teeming mines are striking and poignant, but the views of the center of workday Johannesburg are the most disarming and, finally, unsettling. The cars, the clothes, all very indicative of a completely up-to-date metropolitan locale. One big movie theater's showing The Prisoner of Zenda, another is showing Fiend Without A Face. It's almost nostalgia-inducing, until you remember that this is Johannesburg...apartheid central. And then it hits you that, lack of particular skyscrapers aside, the place doesn't look all that much different than pictures of New York City in the same period. And that's terrifying.
Come Back, Africa plays at New York's Film Forum through February 7. Go see it if you can, and look for the Milestone release in an arthouse near you. I'm sure a DVD is forthcoming. Martin Scorsese speaks the truth when he calls this "a heroic film."