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Category:    Home > Reviews > Drama > Historical > Racism > Oppression > Come Back, Africa: The Films Of Lionel Rogosin, Volume II (1959 - 1970/Milestone Blu-ray)

Come Back, Africa: The Films Of Lionel Rogosin, Volume II (1959 - 1970/Milestone Blu-ray)

Picture: Come Back, Africa: A; Black Roots: B- Sound: Come Back, Africa: A; Black Roots: C Extras: A Films: A

Apartheid in South Africa officially ended in 1994, and yet 20-plus years later it's impossible to watch
Come Back, Africa, Lionel Rogosin's 1959 docu-narrative of the nation and its institutionalized racism, as a dispatch from the long-ago past. Rather, it's as urgent in its outrage, disgust, and activism today as it was more than 55 years ago.

After shooting On the Bowery (reviewed elsewhere on this site), a film concerned with the disregard toward and disposability of New York's homeless population, Rogosin turned his attention to South Africa's decade-old policy of apartheid. It was a topic perfect for a filmmaker whose social-justice streak was many miles long: National race-based policies aimed at grinding its black population into dust through inhumane treatment, savage segregation, and an unending barrage of everyday indignities.

Like his previous feature, Rogosin made Come Back, Africa on location using non-professional actors. In this case, we follow Zachariah, a laborer from the country who dreams of working in the city and providing a better life for, and with, his wife and children. He bounces from one job to the next and confronts increasingly despicable treatment, from both whites and blacks. The experience Zachariah has with whites is brutal. When he lands a domestic job, for example, the woman of the house changes his name to Jack, complains about him to her husband as if he's not there (even though he's standing next to her), her husband waves the complaints away saying ''He's only a native,'' and when the wife refers to Zachariah disparagingly as a 'native' she spits the word out like its poison, before graduating to screaming ''savage'' at him. As the film progresses, Zachariah is fired from one job after another over seemingly inconsequential offenses, threatened with expulsion from the city, and finally arrested in the middle of the night without cause.

But as nasty as these experiences are, Zachariah finds little quarter from members of his own community. He has a group of friends he leans on when times are tough, but they barely protect him from a local thug who, after a perceived slight, tries to stab Zachariah in the street. Later, he murders Zachariah's wife when Zach's in jail. The final moments of the film, Zachariah howling over his wife's body, are searing, full of anguish and anger, the full force of the oppression of whites and the dehumanizing consequences for blacks exploding through one man's inconceivable grief. It haunts your memory forever.

That raw emotion can't compensate for how blunt Come Back, Africa can be, both in terms of content and filmmaking. You never question what a character's motivation is or where Rogosin's sympathies lie, whereas On the Bowery had more shades of gray. Still, Come Back, Africa is a more emotionally visceral film thanks in no small part to being shot on location. On the Bowery was shot on the actual Bowery, but the threat to Rogosin was minimal. Not so with his second feature. He couldn't walk into South Africa and get permission from the government to shoot a full-bore condemnation of its inhumane treatment of its black population. So he told officials he was in country to make a ''political-neutral musical travelogue.'' He shot footage surreptitiously to avoid censors, then had the material smuggled out of the country. This gives the film a heightened sense of verite, especially in the street scenes and in those harrowing moments of Zach confronting a constantly shifting day-to-day reality of life in South Africa.

(While the film is decidedly not apolitical, there are some elements of the travelogue. There are two segments in the middle of the film where Rogosin luxuriates on local musical expression. The first documents life in the slum, from faces young and old to shops and gatherings of residents, as a group of local kids play flute-like instruments. The second captures those kids performing for white office workers and shoppers, who look on with curiosity, impatience, and sometimes enthusiasm. Police officers watch menacingly, but seem OK with allowing the kids to scratch out some loose change. These scenes are brilliant inclusions, not only as impressions of everyday life in South Africa in 1958/9, but as records of a culture in the process of being systemically marginalized - and possibly destroyed - by apartheid.)

The film is a testament to the ingenuity of Rogosin, one of America's most undeservedly forgotten filmmakers. (His work influenced John Cassavetes, was a touchstone for Martin Scorsese, and echoes in the films of Errol Morris and Alex Gibney.) He took the experience of making On the Bowery, honed it, sharpened it, and pointed it at the heart of one of the most repressively racist nations in history. Come Back, Africa is a primal scream of outrage that Rogosin hoped would spur the world to reject South Africa's policies and put an end to apartheid before lasting damage could be done. We know now that the film didn't have that effect; apartheid would last another 35 years.

But that doesn't diminish how successful the film is as a piece of activism. Rogosin risked his life, and the lives of his actors and crew, to steal an unsparing glimpse into a society collapsing in on itself thanks to racism run rampant. But Come Back, Africa isn't just about a society halfway around the world. The film's about us, too. It's impossible that Rogosin didn't think he'd also affect America's seemingly intractable apartheid, Jim Crow, and its less talked about but no-less-significant analogues in the north. By presenting so much cruelty and so much hatred - all of it stemming from racism - Americans couldn't help but demand change at home.

Of course, that effort failed, too. Accordingly, watching Come Back, Africa today, is still a troubling experience. Only the heartless will be unmoved by Zachariah's arc, but it's also impossible to not dwell on the everyday indignities, not-so-coded rhetoric, and blatant segregation suffered by minorities based on race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation that continues to fester around the world. From stop-and-frisk and challenging Barack Obama's birthplace in the United States to race-based legislation aimed at expelled Haitians from the Dominican Republic to the rise of ISIS in the Middle East, systemic discrimination endures, seemingly more intractable than ever before.

Like with On the Bowery, though, Come Back, Africa is an invaluable document of an era we'd all like to think we've progressed beyond. And while the realities of our present can be thoroughly discouraging, it gives Rogosin's work a different legacy than the one he hoped for a half century ago, one that is potentially more valuable than activism - memory. Rogosin has preserved some of our worst societal ills in an effort to, on the one hand, eradicate them, and on the other to remind us that the work is never done. Maybe it can never be complete. But his documentaries are challenges that we cannot ignore. Fifty years on, they continue to speak truth to power, to guide us forward, and encourage us that we can affect change - if we really want it.

Milestone Films' efforts in bringing Rogosin's work to wider attention is one of the great accomplishments of the Blu-ray era. Volume I, which included On the Bowery, is a majestic set; Volume II is just as superlative.

Besides Come Back, Africa, the two-disc set includes a second feature, Black Roots, which even more explicitly links activism with memory. African-American writers, musicians, activists, and leaders talk about the black experience in America with blistering honesty and in sometimes harrowing detail. Shot Charlie Rose-style for European public television in 1970, with one person, two people, or a small group on a dark set, the film is an incredible act of preservation that could easily have carried a home video release on its own. To that end, Milestone gives it its own disc to breathe. Disc 2 includes Black Roots and a 27-minute making-of feature. Also included is the 74-minute documentary Have You Seen Drum Recently?, a 1989 film that captures the importance (socially, culturally, and politically) of the South African magazine Drum, which catered to an urban black readership during apartheid.

Come Back, Africa gets all of Disc 1. Besides the film, there's a 64-minute making of documentary An American in Sophiatown, an audio interview Rogosin did with United Nations radio in 1978 about what he hoped to accomplish with the film and how like South Africa is to end apartheid, an introduction by Martin Scorsese, and a trailer. It's hard to think what else could be added to either disc. Every extra is valuable and adds context and understanding to who Rogosin was as a filmmaker and person.

On the technical side,
Come Back, Africa is given an amazing visual presentation. It went through a 2K restoration in 2005, which is the source for the disc. It's hard to imagine it ever looked as good as it does today. (Previously, the film has been passed from college campus to film society, which isn't the ideal condition for preserving print quality.) That said, there are some points in the film where frames are missing or it's a bit soft. Those are so few and far between, though, that they by no means impair the experience. Black Roots is a different story. The print is in much rougher shape. It's a poorly lit film made for public TV, and it looks about how that sounds. It doesn't diminish the value of the film itself, but it does at times make it a challenge to watch. Both are roughly presented in 1.33 X 1 1080p digital High Definition presentations.

Audio-wise, the same breakdown exists. Come Back, Africa has a PCM Mono soundtrack, which does its job without much pop or hiss. There's an occasional warble, but, again, it doesn't impair anything. Black Roots, meanwhile, is a little tougher to hear. Mic placement, especially in the larger group scenes, might have been an issue - single-person interviews are fine, but the more people (and elements, like guitars) are added, the audio gets more and more strained.

That said, we're extraordinarily lucky to have this work preserved in digital form. Any quibbles with the presentation are minor compared to the alternative: this work committed to oblivion.

- Dante A. Ciampaglia


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