Surreptitiously filmed in South Africa, Lionel Rogosin's docu-fiction time capsule provides an invaluable and fascinating portrait of the apartheid era. Like the director's 1957 skid-row tour, On the Bowery, the movie is held together by a fitful plot, centered largely on KwaZulu villager Zacharia Mgabi and his failed attempts to procure a job---a proposition made impossibly difficult by the restrictions imposed by the ruling white minority. But Rogosin keeps drifting away from his ostensible protagonist, stacking scenes of a street-corner pennywhistle band playing Elvis's "Teddy Bear" and a snaking line of headlamps as coal miners trudge to work in the darkness.
The casual juxtaposition of the preindustrial townships with city streets choked with black workers---not to mention a cinema showing Fiend Without a Face---caustically underlines South African society's profound inequities. Less successful are the awkwardly staged confrontations in which Mgabi is tossed out of work for minor, and sometimes imagined, transgressions; his character is a mute participant in the film's most thrilling exchange, in which patrons of a black speakeasy debate the politics of change and listen to songs by then-unknown chanteuse Miriam Makeba. The conditions of its production make for occasionally ragged results, but rough edges notwithstanding, Come Back, Africa is a work of amazing grace---and a forgotten treasure.
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