Lionel Rogosin’s 1959 docu-fiction film Come Back, Africa tells the story of Zachariah, a peasant African native who leaves his rural home for Johannesburg in search of employment opportunities that could sustain him and his family. Although optimistic about his chances early on in the film, he eventually comes to terms with the harsh realities of life for the natives in South Africa under the apartheid regime.
The film’s exploration of social and economic injustice experienced by Africans under apartheid, and the recurring juxtaposition of white South Africa with the vibrant township life in South Africa in the 1950s, makes Come Back, Africa a groundbreaking film in regards to the representation of Africans on film and the use of cinema as a tool for political discourse on the continent.
Lionel Rogosin’s experiences as a Navy officer during World War 2 had a huge impact on him- despite coming from a wealthy Jewish-American family, he decided to take a stand against fascism and injustice in any part of the world. The white minority-led apartheid regime that was in its early years piqued his interest.
Rogosin was not an experienced filmmaker, and in preparation for his exploration of apartheid on film, he made the 1956 documentary film On the Bowery that served as his crash-course in filmmaking. His use of non-professional actors playing fictionalized versions of their day-to-day life formed the stylistic template that Rogosin later used in Come Back, Africa. On The Bowery also went on to earn a Best Documentary Feature nomination at the Academy Awards the following year.
Soon after this, he attained residency in South Africa with the intention of covertly making a film about apartheid. Rogosin desired to depict apartheid as authentically as he possibly could, and enlisted the help of two African journalists; William “Bloke” Modisane and Lewis Nkosi. Modisane and Nkosi wrote for Drum Magazine, arguably the first black lifestyle magazine on the continent, famed for its reportage on township life in 1950s South Africa. The trio worked out a simple storyline for the script, leaving out most of the dialogue to be improvised.
By Rogosin’s own admission in An American in Sophiatown, a 2007 making-of documentary commissioned by his estate that I highly recommend as a companion piece, Modisane and Nkosi wrote the majority of the script. It is important to note that prior to the 1960s, when a majority of the nations on the African continent attained independence, filmmaking was not practiced by native Africans due to oppressive colonial laws. This makes Come Back, Africa one of the earliest films authored, at least in part, by Africans- Ousmane Sembene, widely considered the “father of African cinema” didn’t make his first film until four years after the release of Come Back, Africa.
Life Under Apartheid
As the films begins, Zachariah (Zacaria Mgabi), the protagonist of the film, is introduced to the audience as one of the many native South Africans looking for work in the city. His search for a job leads him to the Johannesburg mines, where the low pay and harsh working conditions force him to seek employment elsewhere in an even less forgiving environment; the home of a white couple. To get the job, Zachariah needs a pass, which was a hallmark of the apartheid system in the enforcement of the segregation laws of the time and used as an excuse for the white authorities to harass and threaten the African characters throughout the film.
The white couple, played by Monty and Myrtle Berman, are part of the cast of white characters in the film who play the various antagonists giving Apartheid a face. However, in real life these individuals were political activists who were part of the white underground movement to bring down the apartheid system.
Zachariah’s stint with the couple does not last long and ends with him being fired by the wife after a misunderstanding. With nowhere to go, Zachariah returns to the township where a former work colleague connects him to other native South Africans struggling to cope with life under the regime. It’s through these acquaintances that Zachariah is able to find more work, but he loses his job each time for reasons that get more whimsical as the film goes on- one of them involving Zachariah walking in on a naked older white woman while delivering room service. All the while, his wife Vinah (Vinah Bendile) and children relocate to the township to be closer to him. By the end of the film, the frustration caused by the difficulty to make ends meet, coupled with a tragic loss, leads to Zachariah’s mental breakdown.
Capturing The Everyday
The most iconic scenes of the film happen in a shebeen, a local township pub supposedly operating illegally. It is in the shebeen scenes that we are blessed with the most colorful characters in the film. The characters in the shebeen, who are representative of the disenfranchised intellectual class of native South Africans, discuss a variety of topics, touching on everything from religion and the politics of skin complexion, to the use of force as a means to freedom. Zachariah, who is clearly not as well-read or expressive as the other characters, sits and watches on as the discussions happen, but with a clear admiration for what the characters are saying and the freedom of their expression.
William Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, who play characters in the film, are dead-centre of these discussions. In one memorable exchange, one of the patrons (Can Themba) runs his index finger over Modisane’s cheek, claiming “If I could get that much color off you, I could liberate you that much”.
It is also in one of the shebeen scenes that a young Miriam Makeba makes a cameo in the film, indulging the men in the shebeen in song and dance to powerful dramatic effect. Her appearance in this film catapulted her to worldwide fame, and though she passed a decade ago, is still affectionately referred to as Mama Africa for her trailblazing role as a popular African musician and mouthpiece for African resistance to apartheid in South Africa.
Stylistically, the film is a hybrid of documentary and fiction by both design and circumstance. As I mentioned earlier, Rogosin used non-professional actors and worked with a small documentary type crew on real locations, similar to the modus operandi of the Italian neorealism filmmakers who Rogosin was influenced by.
As part of the ruse conjured up to get the film made, Rogosin lied to the government claiming he was shooting a musical that would showcase the vibrant culture of happy and content Africans in the country. Rogosin shot several hours of documentary footage, some of which got into the film. The most memorable being African street performers entertaining white onlookers with puppetry, gum-boot dancing and a glorious number by a ragged group of young penny-whistle musicians.
The film’s documentary aspect allowed it to enshrine a period in history, with the townships’ dilapidated housing constantly juxtaposed with Johannesburg’s urban sprawl.The unfairness of the apartheid system was put on display for the rest of the world to see. Due to the actors’ lack of experience in front of the camera, the acting is at times stiff but that does not take away from the richness of the fictional part story. The African actors bring an authenticity, informed by their life experiences, that none of the classically-trained actors of the time could have brought to the film.
Breaking New Ground
Come Back, Africa was restored by the Cineteca di Bologna, the laboratory L’Imagine Ritrovata, and the Rogosin family estate in 2005. But it remains a criminally overlooked film amongst the global community of film scholars and enthusiasts, in favor of the more renowned works of directors from the national cinemas of North and West Africa.
To this day, it remains arguably the most important film shot in sub-Saharan Africa. It is that rare film set on the African continent, with African characters portrayed with dignity, and presented with respect for their lived experiences. But beyond that, it is an artifact that captures the times vividly enough for future generations to catch a glimpse into the lives of their ancestors. It offers perspective on not only how far they have come, but how far they have to go in the struggle against socio-economic inequality in the world today.
Upon meeting Lionel Rogosin in 1969, Ousmane Sembene, who frequently bashed Rogosin’s much-revered French contemporary Jean Rouch for “observing Africans as if they were insects”, said: “For us the creators, we must not become desperate in front of the wall of silence. We know of works of art that have taken over thirty years to find their rightful audience. For us, in Africa, your film has embodied the problems and preoccupations of this continent.”
Come Back, Africa – South Africa/United States. Dialog in English. Directed by Lionel Rogosin. Starring Zacharia Mgabi, Vinah Bendile and Miriam Makeba.