Come Back, Africa is a rare piece of cinema: Not only will fans of cinéma vérité, Italian neorealist, and French new wave film find much to love about its style, historians will find it to be a valuable film document of an otherwise largely unrecorded period in Africa’s history. At once a brilliant documentary and strong anti-apartheid statement, Come Back, Africa is also jammed with music: From the streets and townships of South Africa to its speakeasies or shebeens, Come Back, Africa introduced singer Miriam Makeba to the world. Among those impressed by the Lionel Rogosin film was Harry Belafonte; the actor/singer/activist would become a mentor, friend and benefactor to Makeba, would help her secure gigs, and would set her in the direction of performing the sounds of South Africa around the globe, while spreading the word against apartheid.
With South African writers, Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, Rogosin developed a filmic narrative driven by the dilemma of people being forceable removed from their land. Come Back, Africa “laid bare apartheid’s ruthless cruelties,” wrote Belafonte, as it tells the story of Zacharia, a man who leaves his country life, his wife Vinah, and their children, to seek work in Johannesburg. What he finds there are unfamiliar laws rooted in racism and a series of dead-end jobs. He confronts inadequate housing and street violence, though a handful of souls provide sanctuary; he is introduced to political ideas and dialogue by the artists and writers of the Sophiatown Renaissance.
Putting non-actors to work amidst the unrest, Come Back, Africa depicted dignity and tragedy; it exposed tremendous human failing, and it revealed glimpses of humanity and compassion. A prize-winning documentarian for his first film On the Bowery (concerning the men on New York’s Skid Row in the late ‘50s), Rogosin made Come Back, Africa largely in secrecy, under the pretense that he was making a travelogue of South African music. He was eventually granted permission to make the film; Time Magazine called it one of the best films of 1960 (alongside The Apartment and Elmer Gantry). “I took a vow at the end of World War II to fight fascism and racism wherever I saw it,” he said.
Writer, producer and director Rogosin was characterized by John Cassevettes as “probably the greatest documentary filmmaker of all time.” He founded the Bleeker Street Cinema and would continue to make films, though later in life, he would have trouble finding the funding for his projects.
Come Back, Africa, starring Zacharia Mgabi, Vinah Bendile, and featuring Miriam Makeba, has been beautifully restored and is currently in re-release. It screens at San Francisco’s Roxie Theater from February 3-8.
Read more about Miriam Makeba, Harry Belafonte and the music of anti-apartheid in