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

Milestone Films has recently released a second collection of Lionel Rogosin’s films, with the main feature being “Come Back Africa” (1959), following their successful 2012 Blu-ray release of Rogosin’s “On the Bowery” (1956).

The film was made during the Apartheid era in South Africa, and Rogosin had to conceal its true political nature from the apartheid regime.

Like “On the Bowery,” “Come Back, Africa” combines documentary and scripted scenes, using non-professional actors to depict realistic life situations.

Despite the potential for being more admirable than compelling, the film is genuinely moving, serving as a political protest and a heartfelt cinematic work.

Blu-ray Review: “Come Back, Africa” (1959)

One of the film’s strengths is Rogosin’s genuine immersion in the South African atmosphere, as he spent several months in the country to understand the culture before beginning production.

Additionally, he collaborated with South African journalists Bloke Modisane and Lewis Nkosi from the magazine Drum.

The story revolves around Zachariah, a Zulu man who struggles to find stable employment in a profoundly racist society despite obtaining a pass to work outside the Johannesburg gold mines.

His experiences as a live-in servant, garage attendant, and hotel employee are short-lived, portraying his profound isolation in a society where racial and social barriers are prevalent.

Zachariah’s separation from his wife, Vinah, and the revelation of additional societal divisions further underscores his challenges.

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

Also, see DVD Review: “Hollow Triumph” (1948)

Like his approach in “On the Bowery,” Rogosin adeptly captures the essence of a community in “Come Back, Africa.” The early scenes of workers commuting effectively convey the country’s dynamic energy and deep divisions.

Music plays a vital role in South African culture, and Rogosin seamlessly integrates street musicians, impromptu gatherings, and a captivating performance by a young Miriam Makeba.

Notably, a scene in an illegal bar presents a compelling film portrayal. Here, a group of intellectuals engage in a discussion about the overwhelming issues of apartheid, highlighting the ineffectiveness of well-intentioned white liberals.

Rogosin’s unpretentious approach to filmmaking is evident in this scene, where he allows the conversation to unfold naturally, devoid of any patronizing tone.

The film’s presentation in high definition maintains exceptional clarity and detail, owing to the thorough restoration of the original negatives.

The transfer by Milestone provides a visually stunning representation of the film, preserving its celluloid-like quality without any digital alterations.

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

The 2.0 mono soundtrack’s quality is limited by the source, resulting in a relatively flat audio experience. English dialogue may be challenging to comprehend at times, mainly due to the speakers’ proficiency with the language.

Milestone’s two-disc Blu-ray set, Volume II in The Films of Lionel Rogosin, is comprehensive. While everything other than “Come Back, Africa” is considered a bonus feature, many films could stand alone. The extras on disc one include:

  • 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 perform songs from various 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 relatively clean.
  • Bitter Sweet Stories (27 minutes) Son Michael directs another making-of doc examining Black Roots.
  • Have You Seen Drum Recently? (1989, 74 minutes) Jürgen Schadeberg directs a doc on the influential South African magazine Drum.

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Ashish Maharjan
Ashish Maharjan
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