The miracle of Lionel Rogosin’s apartheid drama Come Back, Africa isn’t that it’s a solid, affecting artifact of a cruel society, but that it exists at all. In the wake of his debut film, the New York skid-row chronicle On the Bowery, Rogosin set out in 1957 for Johannesburg, and for months laid the groundwork for surreptitiously shooting a follow-up that would lay bare the pain and humiliations of black South Africans subjugated by the white majority, enlisting native writers Lewis Nkosi and Bloke Modisane to collaborate on the scenario. Mixing documentary-like footage with scripted scenes as he had in his first feature, the filmmaker heavily features music and dance by throngs of street performers, a diegetically captured salve for the wounds of extreme poverty and social oppression—and an ideal camouflage of his critical agenda from the South African authorities, who were persuaded that he was assembling a musical or a travelogue. Its narrative spine the unhappy emigration of rural villager Zachariah (Zacharia Mgabi) to the big city, which is often characterized by montages of forbidding skyscrapers or smoke-belching refineries, the film has its aesthetic shortfalls (the nonprofessional cast and fly-by-night production values let the seams show), but fulfills its goal of presenting this time and place in all its vibrancy and sorrow through atmospheric scenes of real daily life and labor.
In his battered cap and frayed jacket, Mgabi’s bumpkin learns from fellow itinerants upon his arrival in Johannesburg that securing an urban job without a slew of permits is nearly impossible. Before long, he’s contracted to work in the outlying gold mines, where the location shots of blasting, digging, drilling, and a nighttime parade of lamp-burning helmets counter the placid simplicity of Zachariah reading out a letter he composes to the wife (Vinah Bendile), who has yet to join him. His mining work ended, quickly moving through unsuccessful city jobs such as houseboy, car washer, and waiter due to suspicious or abusive employers (“cheeky” is among the least incendiary slurs that meet any black’s response to an accusation), and in danger of being set upon by violent hoods in the township where he settles, Zachariah takes comfort in a sort of speakeasy where one of Come Back, Africa’s most compelling scenes takes place. A number of local intellectuals drink while debating the black man’s station in existential and political terms, one among them (Can Themba) wearily refusing to blame a gangster for his lifelong brutishness because “We live in a world of violence,” and dismissing salvation through art or religion because “human nature stinks!” Such alcohol-fueled social discourse is mysteriously liberating to the uneducated Zachariah: “I don’t understand it, but I like it.”
This speakeasy tableau is capped by the then-unknown singing legend Miriam Makeba, who joins the men and serenades them with a pair of casual, lilting tunes before the party dissolves. It’s typical of Rogosin’s method of sharing what he saw in and around Johannesburg: despair and long-suppressed anger not extinguished, but made bearable by song and other forms of physical self-determination, from child penny-whistlers in the streets of Soweto to improvised drumming jams around strolling newlyweds. His crowd scenes of black commuter-train passengers bustling through town under hats and long coats has the snappy look of American Depression melodrama, but accompanied by a constant undertow belonging specifically to this colonial tragedy. From a garage owner snarling about the African National Congress to a mixed-race crowd, together but with subtly different reactions, watching busking boys dance on a Jo’burg sidewalk, Come Back, Africa was the first film of its kind to bear witness to the hypocrisies of this riven country, particularly to audiences in segregated America.