Film Review: Mama Africa

'Mama Africa,' an intriguing but incomplete documentary portrait of Miriam Makeba, succeeds as a glowing introduction to her life and music.
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South African singer and activist Miriam Makeba wasn’t particularly fond of “Pata Pata,” the international pop hit she released in 1967, and which became to her global audience her signature song. In Mika Kaurismäki’s engaging documentary Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba, the late singer explains, via sourced interview footage, that it’s a lightweight tune with fairly “meaningless” lyrics about doing a dance called the pata pata. It’s, by no means, the song she would have chosen to spend the rest of her life singing.

Yet, from the late ’50s, when she first recorded the song as part of the South African girl group The Skylarks, until the night she died in 2008, she did sing “Pata Pata” for the next 50 years of a life and career that are covered broadly in Kaurismäki’s film.

As it plows through Makeba’s remarkable biography, building a somewhat muddled narrative around her decades-long exile from her home country, Mama Africa makes at least one thing crystal-clear: Makeba accomplished and experienced enough in her 76 years to fill a few documentaries. This one appears to leave significant swaths of her story untold, or under-investigated, but overcomes many weaknesses by simply placing its subject front and center, and allowing her talent, intelligence and winning personality to shine.

The movie certainly conveys that Johannesburg-born Makeba created a lasting impact throughout South Africa and the entire continent talking about more than just dancing in her music and speeches. Through her performances, and as seen here addressing the United Nations in 1963 and in several television appearances, Makeba was an eloquent advocate for the civil-rights struggle of blacks in South Africa living under the horrible, segregated conditions imposed by apartheid.

Kaurismäki makes potent use of photos and footage depicting the era’s brutality to illustrate the connection to Makeba songs like “Soweto Blues,” which distinguished her as a leading voice of the movement to end apartheid. That song was written by her fellow South African musical legend Hugh Masekela, who appears on camera to share fond remembrances of the girl he worked alongside in the ’50s, though he reveals precious little about the years he and Makeba later spent married and living in the U.S.

In general, the film deals only glancingly with Makeba’s personal life, often presenting intriguing facts or statements in interviews, with little substantive follow-up to coax more meaning from the mentions. We learn that Makeba was close friends with several African heads of state, which attests to her status in nations all over the continent, but those alliances aren’t examined in any enlightening political or historical context. A montage apparently intended to express how Makeba absorbed the philosophies of Stokely Carmichael, the radical Black Panther Party leader and Makeba’s third husband, doesn’t really communicate what, besides a common cause, drew the two together.

On a similar note, Kaurismäki provides an entertaining sequence that characterizes how the world responded to Makeba as a fresh new talent upon her emergence on the international scene at the Venice Film Festival in Lionel Rogosin’s 1959 film Come Back, Africa. But Mama Africa offers not much insight into what impressions these foreign places and new experiences made on Makeba, except to show how she recognized a connection between the disparate struggles of blacks in the U.S. and in South Africa.

Makeba’s own perspective on her journey gets short shrift, although appearances by her grandchildren do help to make up for the onscreen absence of such key figures in her life as Harry Belafonte, who spun Makeba’s post-Venice stardom into a successful world tour. The magic she created onstage during that tour would cement her status as a global music star whose radiance is captured most brilliantly here not in the newsreels and wonderful performance footage, but in her grandkids’ recollections and home movies. Those unrehearsed, unguarded moments portray most profoundly the spirit of the woman who, as African music superstar Angelique Kidjo points out, carried the sound of South Africa in whatever she sang.

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