Film Review: ‘Come Back Africa’ (1959)


The freshly restored “Come Back, Africa” (1959) is showing (as per Sean’s preview last year) at Film Forum in New York City until Thursday. If you are in the city or close and have the chance, go. There aren’t many films like this one.

“Come Back, Africa” was cowritten by American director Lionel Rogosin with South Africans Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane, and was produced under extraordinarily difficult circumstances. It tells the story of Zachariah Mgabi, a migrant worker who has arrived in the Johannesburg suburb of Sophiatown. He is harassed and harried, hired in the morning and fired in the evening, and is constantly having his pass examined by officious whites. His wife and children join him, and together they begin to make their way into the city. The film is a witty, tender encounter with the quotidian fabric of Sophiatown life. Zachariah’s story is punctuated with lengthy and very beautiful digressions in which the camera roams Johannesburg, following musicians, wedding parties and masses of commuters through the streets.

With activist cinema, it’s expected that the need to carry out urgent political work will confine a film, limiting it to the prosaic. Despite the example of Charlie Chaplin — whose influence on “Come Back, Africa” appears profound — the documentary is presumed to spoil the aesthetic irreparably. Time magazine’s 1960 review begins by praising the film as “a matter-of-fact, horrifying study of life in the black depths [oh dear] of South African society,” before acknowledging that it is “necessarily crude in craftsmanship.” Last week’s TimeOut write-up called it an “invaluable and fascinating portrait”, but a portrait with “rough edges”.

In fact the film is exquisitely crafted and structured. The actors may be amateurs but, as Brecht knew, this is not the same as being bad, and there are several terrific performances in Come Back, Africa; performances that are only richer for their volatility. Nkosi and Modisane both appear, as does fellow Drum writer Can Themba. The long shebeen scene, in which only Miriam Makeba’s arrival can end a drunken debate ranging across issues local, national and existential, is among the greatest pieces of cinema I’ve seen.

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