Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

January 27, 2012

Come Back, Africa

Filed under: Film,South Africa — louisproyect @ 11:58 pm

Starting a one-week run tonight at the Film Forum in New York, a new 35 mm restoration of Lionel Rogosin’s “Come Back, Africa” is a truly special event. Made in apartheid South Africa in 1959, it is the first film to lift up a rock and expose the racist system to the light of day.

In defiance of the prevailing Cold War conformity and the Hollywood film industry’s assembly-line production of schlock, Rogosin became a guerrilla fighter using a Bolex camera rather than a machine gun. He had pledged to resist racism wherever he saw it and apartheid South Africa was about as tempting a target as could be imagined.

The National Party had won the elections in 1948 and instituted the system that was finally abolished with the legalization of the ANC and Nelson Mandela’s presidency. But in 1959 the system was in full bloom. Just a year after Rogosin and his tiny crew wrapped up production, the Sharpeville Massacre took the lives of 69 peaceful protesters. It was a reflection of the reactionary mood of Cold War America that he found it virtually impossible to book the film in theaters. Fortunately, his family wealth enabled him to buy a theater in New York where, paraphrasing A.J. Liebling, he acted on the precept: “Freedom of the motion picture is guaranteed only to those who own a theater.” That theater was named the Bleecker Street Cinema, a temple of fine art beloved by everybody who attended it over the decades until its demise.

“Come Back, Africa” is a mixture of documentary and fiction inspired respectively by two of Rogosin’s idols, Robert J. Flaherty and Italian neo-realism. Using a non-professional cast, Rogosin sought to tell the story of the Black working class whose lives had been destroyed by a system that was symbolized above all by the pass law.

The main character is Zachariah (Zachariah Mgabi), who has been forced to seek for work in Johannesburg after famine strikes his native KwaZulu. The film opens with crowds of whites and Blacks on the streets of Johannesburg going about their business filmed on location by Rogosin. The class differences are manifested by their dress. The whites are in business suits and dresses and the Blacks are dressed shabbily. Zachariah, who we spot among the crowd, is wearing a threadbare suit and a weather-beaten fedora.

His first stop is a gold mine, where sympathetic co-workers tell him that without a permit, he will be fired. His only recourse is to look for work in the informal sector as a “house boy”. In a scene that is highly reminiscent of Ousmane Sembene’s “Black Girl”, a film about the super-exploitation of a Senegalese maid by a French couple, he goes to work for a brutally racist white woman who insists on calling him “Jack” after deciding that “Zachariah will not do.” When he accidentally discards some mushroom soup she had cooked, she speaks out loud to her husband about how backward the natives are.

Ironically, the woman who plays Zachariah’s boss was a South African Communist named Myrtle Berman. Monty Berman, also a Communist and a Jew, played her husband. All of the whites cast in the film were leftists of one sort or another. (Myrtle Berman is interviewed in “An American in Sophiatown”, a 2007 documentary about the making of “Come Back, Africa” that was directed by Lloyd Ross and that should be showing up in theaters sometime this year. Look for it.)

For men like Zachariah, a work permit functions like the bicycle in De Sica’s masterpiece. Without it, he is forced to wander from one low-paying insecure position to another, depending all the while on a network of fellow Black South Africans trying to survive in an oppressive system.

One of the pillars of that support network is the shabeen, a kind of speakeasy where Blacks felt comfortable talking about their plight without having the gaze of the white oppressor upon them. In perhaps the most remarkable scene in an altogether remarkable film, we see Zachariah listening in on a conversation by a group of Black intellectuals in a shabeen. Among them are Lewis Nkosi and William “Bloke” Modisane, the co-authors of Rogosin’s script. Their discussion about racism, the limits of Alan Paton-style liberalism, and other topics appear unscripted and certainly reflect the state of mind in Sophiatown, the neighborhood in Johannesburg that was home to many Black activists and artists. In a crowning scene, the men welcome a very young Miriam Makeba into their midst and listen to her sing two songs. When Steve Allen saw Rogosin’s film, he was so mesmerized by her performance that he pulled strings to get her admitted into the U.S. so she could perform on the Tonight show.

As Rogosin filmed in Sophiatown, you can see evidence of an “urban removal” underway as the Afrikaner government sought to eliminate a semi-autonomous presence that had the same relationship to Johannesburg that Harlem had to New York City. Even if Sophiatown was hospitable to Rogosin’s progressive filmmaking project, he had to keep a close eye on the presence of cops. His stay in South Africa depended on a clever ruse, namely that he was there to film street musicians as part of a travelogue for a tour company. Indeed, the footage of various musicians, including a pennywhistle band, serves as a kind of connective tissue in a somewhat rambling plot.

“Come Back, Africa” was Rogosin’s second film. In “An American in Sophiatown”, he describes “On the Bowery”—his first—as a kind of preparatory work that enabled him to learn how to use a camera and organize a production. That’s quite a mouthful considering the fact that “On the Bowery” is also a classic. (All of the Rogosin films mentioned in this review are part of the inventory of Milestone Films, a 21-year-old company dedicated to making classic cinema available once again.)

Rogosin was part of a cadre of filmmakers in the New American Cinema Group who decided to buck the Eisenhower era trends and make politically and artistically audacious works such as “Come Back, Africa”. Their contribution cannot be overstated. Formed by Jonas Mekas, the founder of Anthology Film Archives, they issued a statement on September 30, 1962 that included a comment on the film scene of the day that still has currency unfortunately:

The official cinema all over the world is running out of breath. It is morally corrupt, esthetically obsolete, thematically superficial, temperamentally boring. Even the seemingly worthwhile films, those that lay claim to high moral and esthetic standards and have been accepted as such by critics and the public alike, reveal the decay of the Product Film. The very slickness of their execution has become a perversion covering the falsity of their themes, their lack of sensibility, their lack of style.

For an idea of the rebellious spirit that animated this group, look no further than “Come Back, Africa”, a film that symbolizes a marriage between art and radical politics so necessary for the period we are living in today.

7 Comments »

  1. Reblogged this on COME BACK, AFRICA and commented:
    Louis Proyect Review of COME BACK, AFRICA

    Comment by milestonefilms — January 28, 2012 @ 2:54 am

  2. Hello,

    Hope you are well.

    South Africa is always a sad topic. When Nelson Mandella took power with a majority the anticipation for change was great. Not only in his native land but through out Africa and the world. Finally somebody had arrived. What went wrong? What happened to the vangaurd of the revolution?

    The story of South Africa insists that the capitalistic system must be abolished. The momnetum for change was bogged down by a beuracratic system that did not change. The leadership of the country had changed but the people who did the day to day operations did not. Thus no substantial progress was made. Certainly our hopes fell short.

    We must learn from South Africa. Wealth distribution is not evil. If you traced those who were wealthy in that land you would find it was stolen by violence. Abolishing capitalism may hurt in the short term but in the long term it will benefit. Capitalism should not be equated with free trade. A person should be allowed to take up on profession they desire. To own a shop, be a plumber, an artist whatever. What must change is a system which is motivated by material things rather than the considerations of human beings. Obviously corporations are the greatest evils. Be they the modern Monsanto or the older English Tea Company.

    Still do not call South Africa a failure. It is a success and more importantly it is a work in progress.

    Love,

    John Kaniecki

    Comment by johnkaniecki — January 28, 2012 @ 11:57 pm

  3. Hello again,

    Just wanted to give the proper link to my poetry magazine.

    Thanx,

    John

    Comment by johnkaniecki — January 28, 2012 @ 11:58 pm

  4. [...] up to shoot a short promo trailer in Philadelphia will break your heart.Louis Proyect dissects Lionel Rogosin’s seminal 1959 film Come Back, Africa, the first ever blistering expose on Apartheid in South Africa.Bad Lit is very happy that one of [...]

    Pingback by Underground Film Links: January 29, 2012 | Bad Lit — January 29, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

  5. –His only recourse is to look for work in the informal sector as a “house boy”. In a scene that is highly reminiscent of Ousmane Sembene’s “Black Girl”, a film about the super-exploitation of a Senegalese maid by a French couple, —

    This kind of thing exists all over the Arab Gulf States as well. Filipinos and other SE Asians are brought in to the bidding of the repugnant royalty there. The situation is really awful.

    Comment by purple — January 29, 2012 @ 4:53 pm

  6. Most of Sophiatown had already been destroyed by the time the movie was made, if I recall correctly. Yes, I see that it began in 1955. (Mattera’s “Memory is the Weapon” is quite good on this.)

    “Mayibuye iAfrika”, or “Come back Africa” was a big ANC slogan way back in the day. Of course it owes something to the pan-Africanists (with a small P).

    Incidentally, the movie fitted quite well into the fiction/movie genre categorised as “Jim comes to Joburg”, whose most then-famous element was Paton’s Cry, The Beloved Country. It was a bit more progressive than most, but the striking thing about it today is how wishy-washy it had to be. But then, the Treason Trial was already on and the Special Branch was gearing up.

    And, yes, Mr. Kaniecki, I feel the same way about us losing out in the AU elections. But don’t despair, I’m sure everything will come out right in the end.

    Comment by hismastersvoice — January 31, 2012 @ 10:39 am

  7. [...] Proyect dissects Lionel Rogosin’s seminal 1959 film Come Back, Africa, the first ever blistering expose on Apartheid in South [...]

    Pingback by Underground Film Links: January 29, 2012 | Underground Film Journal — April 20, 2013 @ 7:49 pm


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