An unforgettable portrait of Miriam Makeba (1932-2008), the world-famous South African artist and civil right activist, who devoted her life to promoting peace and justice and fighting racism around the planet. A figurehead of the Black African movement in exile, her music and daily practice incarnated the hopes and fears of Africa through the convulsive 20th century, so that she has come to be considered the voice and mother of the Continent.
Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki continues to devote himself to bringing to light music and protagonists misrepresented and misunderstood by the West. His personal homage to Miriam Makeba comes after decades of intimate engagement with underground cultures in Brazil, culminating in Brasileirinho (2005) a musical documentary that rends tribute to Choro, the first genuinely Brazilian urban music. Now, in Mama Africa, Kaurismäki rhythmically blends interviews with archival footage of live performances and historical events to guide us through a life dedicated to the fight for recognition and human rights on the African Continent.
After her early years of singing in the dance halls of Cape Town and a racially divided Johannesburg, first in the all-girl band The Skylarks and after in more professional jazz bands, Miriam Makeba appeared in Lionel Rogosin’s milestone neorealist and anti-apartheid film “Come Back, Africa” (1959, trailer below). This event changed her life: a year after leaving to present the film in Venice, she was stripped of her South African citizenship and barred from returning home until near the end of her days, passing 27 years in forced exile. Her first stop was the United States, where Harry Belafonte helped launch her career and transformed her into an artist of international scope. First in America, then later in Guinea Conakry, where she was compelled to live due to rejection from the US music industry and pressure from the FBI due to her marriage to Black Panther activist Stokely Carmichael, her performances and lyrics became a rallying cry in the struggle for the oppressed. In 1963 she became the first black woman to speak at the United Nations, and was known thereafter as “Mama Africa”. Never giving up on her audience, she remained on stage until the very end, and died after giving a concert while on tour in Italy in 2008.
If there is anything missing in the film, it is the presence of Miriam Makeba herself. The inspiration of the film came from co-screenwriter and co-producer Don Edkins, who was developing the concept with the star when she died. From that point, the idea of structuring the film on Makeba’s memories and opinions had to be forgotten, and the director was forced to rely on archival footage and interviews with important people in her life. The director has, however, used this to his advantage. Since her early years in Johannesburg townships, Makeba was associated with such key figures as singers Dorothy Masuka and Abigail Kubeka and trumpeter and first husband Hugh Masekela, and this tendency was magnified through the rest of her life; textured interviews with these and others of her peers, as well as the director’s own footage from Conakry, give a rich insight into the motivations that informed her personal and professional life.
Hamstrung by legal and economic difficulties in his attempts to acquire footage of Makeba herself, Kaurismäki has opted instead to highlight the iconic voices that surrounded her: thus, great attention is paid to her relationships with Stokely Carmichael, Harry Belafonte, and Jean-Marie Dore, former prime minister of Guinea, among others. In this way, the documentary makes tribute to a time and its people, without passing over the heartache that accompanied Makeba from childhood and reached its zenith in the death, at 35 years old, of her daughter and her companion Bongi. A gifted singer and songwriter responsible for many of her mother’s most memorable hits, she would likely have been Makeba’s successor, had fate not cut her life short. The film’s testament to her talent is one of its most touching episodes.
Makeba, a devoted woman, a unique singer and a mother of a continent, resonates today through her activism and art, through the musical accomplishments of her disciples and family members, especially those of her granddaughter, the superstar Benin Angelique Kidjo, who is one of the documentary’s most powerful and lucid voices.
Her staunchest fans may long for more appearances by Makeba onstage or more songs, but the filmmaker, by recurring to a handful of key songs, has managed skillfully to transmit her generous personality and dramatic life without lapsing into idolatry. The mandatory inclusion of “Pata Pata” does not preclude Makeba’s qualifying comment: “…with no meaning at all about a dance called pata pata. I would have preferred another song to be popular.” Bittersweet irony, a constant in the life of a woman, an artist, a continent