Milestone Films’ first volume of works by radical American independent filmmaker Lionel Rogosin featured his ode to Manhattan’s once unsavory, workman filled neighborhood of The Bowery rather fittingly titled On The Bowery. Though the film would release to critical and festival acclaim in 1956, it would not be easily accessible – if at all – on home video decades later.
Rogosin would take it upon himself to screen his works at his, unfortunately closed, Bleecker St Cinema and would distribute through Impact Films, making his films at least accessible for those who were seeking them out. Now, more than a half century after On The Bowery was produced, Rogosin’s films are being lovingly restored by the Cinetica Di Bologna and distributed by Milestone Films. For more about Rogosin’s history, visit the official site of the Rogosin Heritage.
Come Back, Africa
Following up On The Bowery was never going to be easy, but Rogosin likely wouldn’t have had it that way even if he could. Come Back, Africa is the complete opposite of a sophomore slump – though Rogosin did make a short documentary for the United Nations in between, making this his second feature length film – and he seems even more in control of his subjects this time around, at least as much as he can be.
Like On The Bowery, the film is a narrative acted by non-professionals and shot in a vérité (for lack of a better term) style not unlike that of Pennebaker or Cassavetes. Also like his previous film, it takes a decidedly ethnographic approach to both its characters and locations. Only this time, instead of familiar surroundings and people, Rogosin is in Johannesburg.
Come Back, Africa‘s central character is a young man named Zachariah who has arrived in Johannesburg looking for work in order to send money home to his family. Like many other Afrians, Zacharia ends up working in the mines initially but leaves the job in search for something more enjoyable, if not better. In the midst of trying a variety of other jobs, as well as having run ins with the white members of society, his family shows up unannounced to live with him. What follows is worth not having ruined, but it is hard to not at least mention the gorgeous singer Miriam, whose smiling face adorns the cover of the blu-ray. She has a scene that easily steals the already remarkable film and may very well be a moment worth the cost of admission alone.
Rogosin isn’t intent on merely telling a story here – and I don’t think he actually ever is, from what I’ve seen – and it’s all the better for it. This is an inherently politically charged work that feels entirely sincere, regardless of Rogosin being an outsider. This is a filmmaker that is completely in charge of what he’s doing, isn’t answering to anyone and is telling it as it is. As many other filmmakers tried to do before and after him, yet nobody did it quite like he did. Dissecting the political leanings of Rogosin and/or the film is not something that I’m about to do as I think it speaks pretty clearly for itself, but it’s worth noting that there is an agenda here and it is admirably handled.
A whole ten years after Come Back, Africa, Rogosin made this barely hour long look at African American music. This would be Rogosin’s fourth feature – he made Good Times, Wonderful Times in 1965 which Milestone included in the On The Bowery package – and would be released in 1970, following some rather pertinent moments in regards to Civil Rights in the United States.
Rogosin had a hard time with his war themed Good Times, Wonderful Times, enough so that getting another feature made was not an easy task. Compared to his three preceding features, Black Roots almost seems pared back, that is, until people start talking. Rogosin’s gift, throughout these films, has been an uncanny ability to get people to be natural in front of a camera. That’s no different here.
Black Roots is structured somewhat oddly. It really consists of various ways in which stories are told, all by spoken or sung word but in different locations and situations. The two most prominent names here are Florence “Flo” Kennedy and Reverend Gary Davis, each who have stories to share that are alternately informative, emotional and – perhaps – downright frustrating. This, like Come Back, Africa, is political work. It may not be conducted on ‘the streets’ like that film or On The Bowery before it, but Rogosin has not tamed here even if his budget has.
Notes on the Release
Milestone did a fantastic job with the On The Bowery release and this one is coming out just around two years after that did, and it was worth the wait.
First thing to note is the impressive work of the Cinetica Di Bologna on the restorations here. Both have been made with the aid of photochemical materials stored at Anthology Film Archives (including original negatives) and the work must have been painstaking. Come Back, Africa is black & white and looks as stunning as On The Bowery did (which I was fortunate enough to see a 35mm print of, and the work truly does it justice) with solid blacks and whites that don’t blow out. There is some minimal damage present, but that’s to be expected. Black Roots doesn’t fare quite as well but it looks damned good despite its few issues. This one is in color and both the colors and blacks look great, but there is quite a bit more noticeable damage than with the prior films. Nothing severe enough to hinder viewing but there is a fair amount of scratching and/or repairs of scratching that can be seen throughout. That said, having these available in any capacity is a cause for celebration; that they look even this good as well is a gift.
Each title has its own special features. Starting with Come Back, Africa we get a new intro by Martin Scorsese who has been a vocal Rogosin admirer for quite some time. His intro can be played prior to the film and I’d recommend doing so, especially for those not familiar with Rogosin. He does a great job of giving the film context and it’s very brief. After that, there is a nearly hour long documentary by Michael Rogosin titled An American in Sophiatown from 2007. It’s a great look back on Come Back, Africa with archival and recently conducted interviews. A pretty essential watch for Rogosin fans. Then there’s a twenty minute interview with Rogosin from 1979 that’s equally essential.
Black Roots doesn’t get as many specific features but it does get a nearly thirty minute Michael Rogosin documentary titled Bitter Sweet Stories which is this time almost solely comprised of more newly conducted interviews. It’s a worthwhile watch, though not as robust as other supplements here. Following that, and lastly, we have Have You Seen Drum Recently? made by Jürgen Schadeberg. This is a bit of a strange inclusion as it wasn’t made by, or has anything directly to do with, Lionel Rogosin. However, it is interesting by context – it has to do with the South African magazine Drum which was a culture magazine for blacks – and is rewarding enough to justify its seventy-four minute runtime.
And that’s it. Another stellar package by Milestone for the second volume in their Lionel Rogosin collection. If there’s a third one, I’ll be buying it. And anyone even remotely interested in the filmmaker, American independent filmmaking and/or the subjects of the films should consider this an essential purchase.