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By Phil Hall | January 27, 2012

Barely seen since its initial theatrical release, Lionel Rogosin’s 1959 drama is significant for offering one of the first ground-level views of South African life under the apartheid system. Rogosin, an American independent filmmaker who received an Oscar nomination for his 1956 docu-drama “On the Bowery,” fooled the South African authorities into believing he was in their country to make a benign musical.

Rogosin was forced to work under financially tight and emotionally precarious situations with a nonprofessional cast. This explains some of the problems with his film: technical sloppiness (including mismatched reaction shots and a boom mike intrusion in one scene), inadequate acting and a somewhat rickety screenplay that occasionally drifts from its central focus.

The core story in “Come Back, Africa” involves Zachariah, who leaves his rural village in the KwaZulu province to seek financially lucrative work in Johannesburg. The apartheid laws prevent black South Africans from working and living in Johannesburg without permits, but Zachariah perseveres to find a place in the city. Unfortunately, his dubious work ethic results in a skein of lost jobs, and the arrival of his wife and children to join him only creates more problems.

To its credit, “Come Back, Africa” provides an in-depth examination of the poverty and humiliation faced by black South Africans during the apartheid years. Much of the film was shot on location in Sophiatown slums where Johannesburg’s black population was forced to lived, yet the misery of the location was often alleviated by bursts of happiness – most wonderfully in a wedding procession that seems to emerge out of nowhere. The filmmaker also had access to the gold mines outside of Johannesburg where black laborers worked under dismal conditions for paltry pay.

But the key problem with “Come Back, Africa” falls on the characters created by Rogosin. All of the whites are horrible racists – one of Zachariah’s employers is clearly identified as being Jewish, for no clear reason. Yet the black characters are mostly seen as irresponsible and vicious – a stereotype propagated by apartheid apologists – and the film’s tragic denouement is an act of black-on-black violence that cannot, in any way, be attributed to South Africa’s whites.

Zachariah is also a somewhat unlikable personality, and it is hard not to agree with his angry employers who find him gulping down their whiskey and going in an automobile joy ride when he should be working. When Zachariah’s wife offers to get work to help their family, his chauvinistic refusal is abrasively harsh.

Oddly, the most memorable sequence in the film is the moment that has absolutely nothing to do with the story: in the middle of a long-winded socio-political discussion among a group of Sophiatown malcontents (which includes a wicked slam against Alan Paton’s “Cry, the Beloved Country”), vocalist Miriam Makeba inexplicably arrives and, with very little prompting, performs two songs. Makeba’s sensual song performances gives the film a level of vibrancy and passionate energy, and the film would help launch her international singing career, making her the first African star of the world music scene. For many people “Come Back, Africa” is primarily known as the Miriam Makeba movie. And, quite frankly, it is worth enduring Rogosin’s imperfect offering just to enjoy Makeba’s brief display of star power.

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