Come Back, Africa (The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 2) Review

Any time we hit upon a relatively unfamiliar filmmaker whose work nonetheless matters and endures, it can be helpful to  identify something in the way of motivation. What made this person tick? What was his or her artistic motivation for making movies? With Lionel Rogosin, director of On the Bowery and Come Back, Africa, the key is actually fairly straightforward. His interest in the oppressed was front and center in most everything he created. He had such a distaste for oppressive environments that it became his mission to bring attention to the plight of those lacking basic freedoms. As polemic as the results could be, it's difficult to argue against either the message or the method. Very few white American filmmakers were attacking the apartheid system in South Africa in 1959, as Rogosin did with Come Back, Africa.

Even On the Bowery, his first film and one which has already received a loving release on Blu-ray from Milestone, was apparently done as a means of gaining experience and knowledge leading up to the bigger goal approached in Come Back, Africa. The earlier picture is a dark dance around the poverty of New York City in the 1950s. It's a documentary without the safety net but still given a sort of narrative to make it more palatable. Come Back, Africa shares the hybrid documentary feel of On the Bowery, but it takes on a different kind of dramatic narrative, albeit one still without professional actors. We're told from the start that it was filmed "secretly" in Johannesburg and some initial street scenes do well in supporting the seeming cinema verite nature of the shoot. Even here, at the beginning, we're shown South Africa as being a place where the whites are dressed well and walk the streets proudly without incident as the blacks appear in ragged clothes, moving in packs with faces of defeat.

The narrative here takes on its purpose through the journey of a new addition to the city named Zachariah. We see that blacks must have both papers for work and for identification. Men like Zachariah are trained to work in the mines. The reasons aren't explicitly spelled out but one can easily infer that they take on the labor-intensive jobs considered unfit for the minority whites. As Zachariah tries to navigate the completely unfamiliar terrain of the city, he bounces from one job to the next. His dismissals are for varied reasons, often not at all owing to any actual trouble he's caused. One woman who's employed him as a house boy doesn't like his name so, in a touch quickly bringing to mind the actions of American slaveowners, she opts to call him Jack. The woman also finds it necessary to berate him with insults before eventually sending Zachariah on his way. Her husband actually puts up a defense of sorts for their servant but the wife's not really in the charitable mood.

Rogosin uses Zachariah's struggles as a means of illustrating a much greater problem at the core of South Africa's apartheid. The film's unflinching willingness to bring this issue to light still impresses. There's sympathy felt for the character, but there's also at least a twinge of anger and frustration that roughly a century after the end of slavery in the United States some things look all too familiar. Rogosin injects moments and scenes of more lighthearted singing and dancing away from work, with star-to-be Miriam Makeba providing some of the entertainment. These interludes come across mainly as means of retaining some sense of independence - small victories in the face of daily defeats. The joyousness is unavoidably tempered with an antiquated reality.

As a document of a different time and a thankfully uncommon place, Rogosin's Come Back, Africa could hardly feel more important. It happens to have a great backstory but what's on screen in itself is pretty compelling. Beyond that, there's plenty more here to enjoy in this release, officially billed as "The Films of Lionel Rogosin, Volume 2." The director's 1970 film Black Roots can be found on a second disc alongside another full-length documentary extra, Have You Seen Drum Recently?, about a black-focused magazine in South Africa in the 1950s. Black Roots runs about an hour and takes the loose form of part storytelling, part performance piece. It shows several African Americans, including bluesman Rev. Gary Davis, as they talk about some of the racial mistreatment they've encountered in their lives. Alongside the interviews are songs performed both onscreen and in the soundtrack. The film is also notable for its close, intimate way of showing those featured, as well as the credited involvement (as musical consultant) by noted collector of folk music Alan Lomax.

The Discs

Considering the general level of care put into Milestone's releases, it's almost redundant to call one a labor of love but everything about Come Back, Africa sure seems to fit that distinction to a tee. The two-disc Blu-ray set is packed full of goodies while also never losing sight of delivering an excellent technical presentation. The region-free BDs approach perfection.

Cineteca del Comune di Bologna did a thorough restoration on Come Back, Africa and, as with On the Bowery, the results are sparkling. It looks like a film, shimmering grain and all, but eschews any sense of battered, worn-out elements of damage. The black and white 4:3 images come through cleanly and in great detail. It may be slightly softer than On the Bowery but that's hardly a knock on what makes for a thoroughly impressive viewing.

Audio, via an English LPCM Audio, sounds clear and happily restored. The two-channel track impresses without ever necessarily having to strain itself. Words and music emerge naturally minus any real barrier. Subtitles are available in English for the hearing impaired.

If we simply consider this a release of Come Back, Africa (which I am, for grading purposes) then the extras here are rather staggering. There's an entire second film by Rogosin - Black Roots, briefly discussed above - which was also restored by the Cineteca del Comune di Bologna. Additionally, the first disc has a nifty making-of documentary made by Lionel Rogosin's son Michael. Called "An American in Sophiatown" (51:54), it features interviews from 2000 with his dad and more recent discussion by a few of the film's key collaborators. Lionel Rogosin's audio-only radio interview (19:44) from 1978 might actually contain the most insightful moments among the extras since having the filmmaker speak in his own words about the project is tough to top. Adding some name recognition to the set is Martin Scorsese, who graciously provided a short introduction (2:15) to the film. The film's theatrical trailer (2:21) has also been included.

Disc two is where Black Roots (63 mins.) and Have You Seen Drum Recently? (74 mins.), the 1988 documentary by director Jürgen Schadeberg can be found. It also has a separate making-of piece by Michael Rogosin, called "Bitter Sweet Stories" (28:25) which goes into more detail on Black Roots. These are all must-watch programs, able to provide further insight into both Rogosin as a filmmaker and the subjects which caught his eye.

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