- Come Back Africa (1959): Another Look
- Film & History: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Film and Television Studies
- Center for the Study of Film and History
- Volume 10, Number 3, September 1980
- pp. 43-46
- View Citation
- Additional Information
COME BACK AFRICA (1959): ANOTHER LOOK By Kenneth R. Hey Kenneth Hey teaches in thefilm program at Brooklyn College. His recent study ofOn The Waterfront appeared in the Winter 1979 issue ofmerican Quarterly which was devoted entirely tofilm and American Culture. By the time Come Back, Africa reached the American public early in 1960, the film had a story to tell through its characters, and the filmmakers had a curious story to tell about how the film came to be. Producer, writer, and director Lionel Rogosin (On the Bowery, 1956) entered the project in 1958. The idea for a film dealing with South Africa's apartheid developed during conversations between Walter White, secretary of the NAACP, Alan Paton, author of Cry, the Beloved Country (1952), and Rogosin. The young filmmaker had read Paton's book and had been drawn to the topic even before the conversations. But after their meeting at White's home, Rogosin wrote a script and applied for a visa to shoot a film in South Africa. His success in acquiring the visa depended upon his promise that the film would be a song and dance musical about happy and contented blacks working in the government gold mines. During the 1 8 months of filming, Rogosin dutifully sent falacious "rushes" to government observers who contentedly studied images of smiles and resignation. Meanwhile, negatives of documentary footage depicting slums, squalor, and apartheid repression lined staff suitcases awaiting development in the United States. Because the filmmakers worried about government informers within the acting troop, very few people in the film knew the subject or structure ofthe film being made. In this atmosphere of secrecy and bothersome restrictions, Rogosin and his staff, for $70,000, created a "story documentary" which railed assertively against the evils of governmental racism. But the process ofmaking the film remains more intriguing than the product. Although the story about making the film story sounds heroic and deserves attention, the film itself strikes contemporary minds as more harmful than helpful. The title is a direct translation of the slogan for the African National Congress, a political assembly desirous ofreturning Africa to native Africans. The story tells of Zachariah Mgabi (all actors were amateurs and kept their own names). Zachariah, seeking employment and better living conditions in Johannesburg, becomes involved in a series ofincidents which when taken together describe a cycle ofdesperation applicable—as the opening screen comments state—to thousands ofblack South Africans. Zachariah must carry papers, must never argue with whites, must separate from his wife when employers insist, must refrain from discussing politics, and must resign himselfto accepting an inferior status for life. His wife, who works as a domestic servant, is finally murdered by a craven black man, a violent victim ofthe system. Having worked hard and having tried to succeed, Zachariah ends his story without a family, without a job, and without hope. Despite the heavy-handed events in the story line, Zachariah's life remains secondary to the actual visual footage oflife in an apartheid society. Highrise buildings, symbols ofmodern, commercial success, are intercut with pitiful shanties, symbols of racist social laws. Middle-class, white manners, values, and lifestyles are criticized by comparison to the bustling conditions existent even among the most oppressed. Thus, the story told ofimpossible conditions and inhuman relationships between races while the documentary footage captured the actual results of those situations. 43 Critics received the adventuresome film with interest tempered by concern. Pointing to the documentary footage, all agreed, as Time (April 25, 1960) explained, that "Come Back, Africa is a timely and remarkable piece ofcinemajournalism: a matter-of-fact, horrifying study oflife in the black depths of South African society." The New York Times (April 12, 1960) concurred and suggested that the resilience of the black characters prevailed against the evil ofwhite domination. "Their [the blacks'] liveliness overcomes the squalor and hopelessness in which they live, their masters are insecure and troubled while their eagerness for life can survive oppression and hopelessness." The film, according to the Times, made available in visual form what many outside of South Africa knew only from print media. The power of the setting made inevitable a strong reaction against South...