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Mama Africa (Mika Kaurismaki, 2011)


The life and career of South African singer Miriam Makeba are remembered in Mika Kaurismaki’s politically aware Mama Africa. Cobbling together fragments from a life lived large, this documentary pays equal mind to Makeba’s activism and artistry. The archival footage used throughout the film both offers snippets of Makeba’s forgotten performances and gives a sense of the political circumstances that she negotiated during her journeys. From apartheid conditions in South Africa to a brush with the mainstream in New York City to virtual exile in Guinea, her career has spanned multiple continents and extremes of both notoriety and popularity. Makeba’s story is clearly a political one in many respects. Early in Mama Africa we learn how she would covertly practice despite the watchful eyes of South African police. Later, after her appearance in Lionel Rogosin’s 1959 documentary Come Back, Africa, she would become an exile for much of her adult life. Afterwards, she became the first African musician to speak in the United Nations, which resulted in her music being banned from her home country as well. Finally, her marriage to Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael turned her into a pariah in her adopted homeland of the United States, resulting in a move to Guinea.


Kaurismaki presents the facts of Makeba’s life in straightforward manner. As a result, his politics don’t get in the way of his subject’s. “I do not sing politics, I merely sing the truth,” she states, but clearly her multilingual music is deeply political. At one point, she rejects her biggest hit, “Pata Pata,” because it lacks any deeper meaning. During one interview, after being driven out of the United States, she says “I always say that the only differences between South African and America are very slight.... South Africa admits that they are what they are.” The outspoken Makeba was anything but a voice with nothing to say, and this film makes that clear to us.


Mama Africa’s biggest failings are general failings of the documentary form. Of course most of the events in the film took place decades ago, so we lose some degree of immediacy that talking heads and stock footage cannot quite restore. In the film’s first hour, where the events of her life take place on a global level and events seem larger than even a personality as big as Makeba, this is fine, but once Kaurismaki begins to recount her extended stays in Guinea and Belgium, and the personal tragedies that struck Makeba there, the film loses much of its energy. A last-act rally occurs as Mandela’s release sees Makeba return to her homeland, though, and it is in these final moments that Mama Africa finally comes full circle.



Jeremy Heilman