After 50 years, Lionel Rogosin's groundbreaking film Come Back, Africa finally gets its due
Meanwhile Zachariah's wife arrives from their native KwaZulu, and they tentatively set up house in a Sophiatown shack. (Come Back, Africa is of particular interest for its scenes there — within a few years the government had forcibly emptied this poor black township, having made its population mix of races illegal, and the area was razed to become an unrecognizable whites only suburb.) But even this small foothold on stability is doomed. Just as alcoholism dragged On the Bowery's hero back into a downward spiral at the end (both on- and offscreen), so Zachariah and his family are helpless to save themselves from the violence, police harassment, and self-destruction apartheid breeds and maintains itself with.
All show and almost no "tell," Come Back, Africa pauses around the two-thirds point to let several men pass around a bottle, discussing the nature of and solutions to their oppression. They're happily interrupted by the incongruity of a young woman in an elegant cocktail dress — no less than a then-unknown Miriam Makeba, who sings a couple of songs in her inimitable voice. When the film was finished, Rogosin bribed officials to get her out of the country, bankrolling his contracted "discovery's" launch at the Venice Festival, and in the U.S. and England. But to his great disappointment, she was quickly taken under Harry Belafonte's wing, dismissing her first benefactor as "not very nice" and "an amateur." Thus a legend was born, with Rogosin pretty much cut out of the resume.
Come Back, Africa, too, would disappoint its maker in some respects. With a furious South African government swiftly condemning this portrait as "distorted," his original plans for a trilogy became impossible. The film won a number of prizes — although unlike On the Bowery, it was pointedly not nominated for a Best Documentary Oscar — and would eventually be widely seen on European television. But it has still never been broadcast in the U.S., and despite Rogosin's efforts — he went so far as to open NYC's still-extant Bleeker Street Cinemas in 1960 to show it and other important new works — it collided with a thud against the overwhelming indifference of middle-class white audiences. They were barely starting to confront such thorny racial issues in their own backyard, much less in far-flung nations. Not shown in South Africa until the late 1980s, Come Back nonetheless proved a great influence on development of the whole continent's indigenous cinematic voices.
A liberal shit-kicker to the end, Rogosin made other documentaries, was integral to the New American Cinema movement (alongside Jonas Mekas, Robert Downey Sr., Shirley Clark, and other experimental luminaries), founded distribution company Impact Films, and moved to England for a spell before dying in Los Angeles at the century's turn. It's a pity he didn't live to see his two first features restored and rediscovered — though interviews late in life suggest he never let limited exposure dampen his activist zeal one whit.
COME BACK, AFRICA opens Fri/3 at the Roxie.