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Blu-ray Review: “Come Back, Africa” (1959): The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume II

Come Back, Africa

Following up their superb 2012 Blu-ray release of Lionel Rogosin’s On the Bowery (1956), Milestone Films has released a very welcome second volume of Rogosin’s films, headlined by his second feature, Come Back, Africa (1959). Made during the height of Apartheid in South Africa, Come Back, Africa was made under false pretenses, with Rogosin concealing the true political nature of the film from the apartheid regime.

Like On the Bowery, the film features a mixture of documentary and scripted scenes, with Rogosin using non-actors to recreate scenes that could have taken place in their lives. This blend of Robert Flaherty-like observation and Neorealism-influenced drama is the kind of thing that could be more admirable than compelling, but Come Back, Africa is a genuinely moving film, not just an act of political protest. One of the chief reasons the film works is Rogosin’s unpretentious immersion in the atmosphere of South Africa. This is not the work of an outsider who purports to have all the answers. Before embarking on production, Rogosin spent a number of months in South Africa to better understand the culture, and when he eventually set upon the project, he did so with co-writers Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi, South African journalists for the magazine Drum. Broadly, Come Back, Africa is the story of Zachariah, a Zulu man who manages to get a pass to work outside the Johannesburg gold mines, but struggles to maintain any meaningful employment in a viciously racist society filled with Afrikaners who immediately believe the worst about him. Stints as a live-in servant, garage attendant and hotel employee are all very short-lived. Zachariah is a portrait of isolation, whether he’s the only black face occupying Rogosin’s frame or whether he’s surrounded by people who should seemingly be his friends. He’s separated from his wife, Vinah, who lives elsewhere for her job, and he discovers that the divide between black and white isn’t the only caste system in play. Africa 1 Like in On the Bowery, Rogosin here has a knack for visually capturing the essence of a community. Early shots of workers commuting in homogenous masses instantly communicate both the seething energy and deep division of the country. Music is a vital component of the South African culture, and Rogosin integrates that in scenes of street musicians, impromptu gatherings and in the film’s signature moment, an irresistible pair of performances by a young Miriam Makeba. This entire scene, taking place in an illegal bar or shebeen, encapsulates what makes Come Back, Africa such a compelling film. A group of intellectuals discuss the vast, seemingly unconquerable problems of apartheid, while agreeing that patronizing, well-meaning white liberals are of no help to the cause. Rogosin seems to understand this about his own filmmaking, resulting in a film and a scene that consciously avoid patronization. In this scene especially, he steps back, allowing the conversation to unfold in leisurely fashion, with all the half-formed ideas and digressions present in any real discussion. These people aren’t paragons of virtue or human object lessons or mouthpieces for the director’s ideas about the crisis. They’re just people, and Rogosin’s unassuming respect for the people of South Africa in his film is a forceful anti-apartheid stand by virtue of its contrast to the toxic cultural climate. Come Back, Africa is presented in 1080p high definition and 1.33:1 aspect ratio. Sourced from a restoration of original negatives, a fine grain negative and a dupe negative by the Cineteca di Bologna, the transfer on Milestone’s release is every bit the equal of the extraordinary On the Bowery disc. Clarity and detail are exceptional, and the very thorough restoration has eradicated all but a few instances of damage. The film’s grain structure is less visible than On the Bowery, but grain is still visible and unaltered here. One wouldn’t expect anything less than a conscientious digital transfer from Milestone, and this lives up to expectations, with no compression issued or digital over-tampering to detract from the gorgeous, celluloid-like quality of the image. Africa 2 The uncompressed 2.0 mono soundtrack is only going to be as good as the source allows, and the result is a fairly flat track. English dialogue is occasionally difficult to understand, although that’s more a function of the speakers’ facility with the language. Milestone’s two-disc Blu-ray set is billed as Volume II in The Films of Lionel Rogosin, and it’s a packed release. For clarity’s sake, I’ve relegated everything other than Come Back, Africa to bonus feature status, but several of these films could easily lead their own set. The set’s extras on disc one are:

  • Introduction by Martin Scorsese (2 minutes)
  • An American in Sophiatown: The Making of Come Back, Africa (64 minutes) Rogosin’s son Michael and Lloyd Ross direct this in-depth look at numerous aspects of the production.
  • Radio interview with Lionel Rogosin (19 minutes) Despite being conducted by a sometimes unnecessarily combative interviewer, this piece from 1978 offers some interesting insights into Rogosin’s political motivations for making the film. Audio plays over film clips.
  • Come Back Africa theatrical trailer (2 minutes)

Disc two contains:

  • Black Roots (1970, 63 minutes) Rogosin’s fourth feature expands on the music/politics marriage in the shebeen scene in Come Back, Africa. Activists and musicians, including Reverend Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, Florynce “Flo” Kennedy, Jim Collier, Wende Smith, Larry Johnson and Reverend Gary Davis discuss the black experience in the United States and/or perform songs from a variety of genres. Rogosin’s observational camera also takes to the streets of New York, where he shoots close-ups of a wide variety of black men, women and children, his images again acting as a forceful humanist statement all on their own. Presented in 1080p, the color cinematography is gritty, but fairly clean.
  • Bitter Sweet Stories (27 minutes) Son Michael directs another making-of doc, here examining Black Roots.
  • Have You Seen Drum Recently? (1989, 74 minutes) Jürgen Schadeberg directs a doc on the influential South African magazine Drum.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair and Poor, Milestone Films’ Come Back, Africa Blu-ray rates: The Film (out of ****): ***1/2 Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2 Video Transfer: **** Audio: **1/2 New Extra Features: **** Extra Features Overall: ****   Milestone Films 1959 / Black and white / 1.33:1 / 86 min / $39.95     Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based writer and editor who splits his critical ambitions between writing Blu-ray & DVD reviews and theater criticism. He’s a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.

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