Starting a one-week run tonight at the Film Forum in New York, a new 35 mm restoration of Lionel Rogosin’s “Come Back, Africa” is a truly special event. Made in apartheid South Africa in 1959, it is the first film to lift up a rock and expose the racist system to the light of day.
In defiance of the prevailing Cold War conformity and the Hollywood film industry’s assembly-line production of schlock, Rogosin became a guerrilla fighter using a Bolex camera rather than a machine gun. He had pledged to resist racism wherever he saw it and apartheid South Africa was about as tempting a target as could be imagined.
The National Party had won the elections in 1948 and instituted the system that was finally abolished with the legalization of the ANC and Nelson Mandela’s presidency. But in 1959 the system was in full bloom. Just a year after Rogosin and his tiny crew wrapped up production, the Sharpeville Massacre took the lives of 69 peaceful protesters. It was a reflection of the reactionary mood of Cold War America that he found it virtually impossible to book the film in theaters. Fortunately, his family wealth enabled him to buy a theater in New York where, paraphrasing A.J. Liebling, he acted on the precept: “Freedom of the motion picture is guaranteed only to those who own a theater.” That theater was named the Bleecker Street Cinema, a temple of fine art beloved by everybody who attended it over the decades until its demise.
“Come Back, Africa” is a mixture of documentary and fiction inspired respectively by two of Rogosin’s idols, Robert J. Flaherty and Italian neo-realism. Using a non-professional cast, Rogosin sought to tell the story of the Black working class whose lives had been destroyed by a system that was symbolized above all by the pass law.
The main character is Zachariah (Zachariah Mgabi), who has been forced to seek for work in Johannesburg after famine strikes his native KwaZulu. The film opens with crowds of whites and Blacks on the streets of Johannesburg going about their business filmed on location by Rogosin. The class differences are manifested by their dress. The whites are in business suits and dresses and the Blacks are dressed shabbily. Zachariah, who we spot among the crowd, is wearing a threadbare suit and a weather-beaten fedora.
His first stop is a gold mine, where sympathetic co-workers tell him that without a permit, he will be fired. His only recourse is to look for work in the informal sector as a “house boy”. In a scene that is highly reminiscent of Ousmane Sembene’s “Black Girl”, a film about the super-exploitation of a Senegalese maid by a French couple, he goes to work for a brutally racist white woman who insists on calling him “Jack” after deciding that “Zachariah will not do.” When he accidentally discards some mushroom soup she had cooked, she speaks out loud to her husband about how backward the natives are.
Ironically, the woman who plays Zachariah’s boss was a South African Communist named Myrtle Berman. Monty Berman, also a Communist and a Jew, played her husband. All of the whites cast in the film were leftists of one sort or another. (Myrtle Berman is interviewed in “An American in Sophiatown”, a 2007 documentary about the making of “Come Back, Africa” that was directed by Lloyd Ross and that should be showing up in theaters sometime this year. Look for it.)
For men like Zachariah, a work permit functions like the bicycle in De Sica’s masterpiece. Without it, he is forced to wander from one low-paying insecure position to another, depending all the while on a network of fellow Black South Africans trying to survive in an oppressive system.
One of the pillars of that support network is the shabeen, a kind of speakeasy where Blacks felt comfortable talking about their plight without having the gaze of the white oppressor upon them. In perhaps the most remarkable scene in an altogether remarkable film, we see Zachariah listening in on a conversation by a group of Black intellectuals in a shabeen. Among them are Lewis Nkosi and William “Bloke” Modisane, the co-authors of Rogosin’s script. Their discussion about racism, the limits of Alan Paton-style liberalism, and other topics appear unscripted and certainly reflect the state of mind in Sophiatown, the neighborhood in Johannesburg that was home to many Black activists and artists. In a crowning scene, the men welcome a very young Miriam Makeba into their midst and listen to her sing two songs. When Steve Allen saw Rogosin’s film, he was so mesmerized by her performance that he pulled strings to get her admitted into the U.S. so she could perform on the Tonight show.
As Rogosin filmed in Sophiatown, you can see evidence of an “urban removal” underway as the Afrikaner government sought to eliminate a semi-autonomous presence that had the same relationship to Johannesburg that Harlem had to New York City. Even if Sophiatown was hospitable to Rogosin’s progressive filmmaking project, he had to keep a close eye on the presence of cops. His stay in South Africa depended on a clever ruse, namely that he was there to film street musicians as part of a travelogue for a tour company. Indeed, the footage of various musicians, including a pennywhistle band, serves as a kind of connective tissue in a somewhat rambling plot.
“Come Back, Africa” was Rogosin’s second film. In “An American in Sophiatown”, he describes “On the Bowery”—his first—as a kind of preparatory work that enabled him to learn how to use a camera and organize a production. That’s quite a mouthful considering the fact that “On the Bowery” is also a classic. (All of the Rogosin films mentioned in this review are part of the inventory of Milestone Films, a 21-year-old company dedicated to making classic cinema available once again.)
Rogosin was part of a cadre of filmmakers in the New American Cinema Group who decided to buck the Eisenhower era trends and make politically and artistically audacious works such as “Come Back, Africa”. Their contribution cannot be overstated. Formed by Jonas Mekas, the founder of Anthology Film Archives, they issued a statement on September 30, 1962 that included a comment on the film scene of the day that still has currency unfortunately:
The official cinema all over the world is running out of breath. It is morally corrupt, esthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring. Even the seemingly worthwhile films, those that lay claim to high moral and esthetic standards and have been accepted as such by critics and the public alike, reveal the decay of the Product Film. The very slickness of their execution has become a perversion covering the falsity of their themes, their lack of sensibility, their lack of style.
For an idea of the rebellious spirit that animated this group, look no further than “Come Back, Africa”, a film that symbolizes a marriage between art and radical politics so necessary for the period we are living in today.