Cover of Darkness

01/25/2012 4:00 AM |

Come Back, Africa (1959)
Directed by Lionel Rogosin

Zacharia (Zacharia Mgabi) and his family are forced from their native Zululand by a plague-level famine; attempting to set himself up in a Johannesburg gold mine, he’s unable to get the right permit from the colonial police. Thus begins the string of events in Lionel Rogosin’s Come Back Africa, a film which proceeds with near real-time anxiety in its replications of more than one true story. Relocated to the slum-burb of Sophiatown (famous for its jazz), Zacharia drifts in and out of luck, buffeted either by oppressive taboos or indecipherable bureaucracy. There are no grandiose “statements” to Rogosin’s plot.

Zacharia is fired, frequently: for failing to understand white culture, for overstepping his bounds, or for outright mischief—problems stemming either from naivete, or abiding indifference. Whether he works hard or not, many of the whites’ rules look just as backwards to him as he does, personally, to them. A short-lived gig as “houseboy” to a particularly crone-like colonial wife is a sharp detour into a kind of domestic hell rarely depicted onscreen in the sanguine fifties. For the first time, Rogosin puts a white face to apartheid, making South Africa look less like the paradise of “separate development” the regime was espousing than like the barbaric neo-plantation state it actually was. The scene is two types of painful: the bigger the strain Zacharia puts on his employers, the tighter the film’s clutch on its audience.

The characters are all portrayed by nonactors, many embodying past versions of their real-life selves; thus, the filmmaking is inextricable from the end product. His centerpiece is a tipsy discussion between bums—played by the intellectuals Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, who also worked on the screenplay—about the impossibility of equality between whites and blacks, happily interrupted by a song from a very young Miriam Makeba. After six months of interviews across the black economic spectrum, the director sculpted the movie around his subjects, including heavyweights like the aforementioned—conctacts established via Drum, the country’s classic progressive lifestyle magazine.

Those strokes may have resulted in a film more manicured than its comparably semi-fictional predecessor (On The Bowery), but you wouldn’t know it from watching. You can feel the faith and energy of the film’s argument, the latitude granted the performers; Come Back Africa was disguised from (and thus, approved by) the South African government as a racist musical, and rushes were shipped to Manhattan for editing. (Later, Rogosin would personally finance the escapes of both Makeba and Modisane.) Shooting during the continent’s first great wave of postcolonial independence, he depicts the outlier apartheid system in ways both fiery and subtle—a straightjacket of forcible ignorance, made all the more heartbreaking by the despair it creates in its victims. Their only salvation is culture: a lush song on the radio, a bottle passed around in secret, maybe some live music on a street corner. It never lasts.

Opens January 27 at Film Forum