Mama Africa

Mama Africa


Reviewed by: Robert Munro

Miriam Makeba, otherwise known as Mama Africa, finally has her truly amazing life story told on the big screen in this genuinely inspiring documentary from Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismaki. Piecing together archive footage of her inimitably charismatic live performances and interviews with friends and family, this film manages to do justice to Makeba’s wonderful talent and noble activism.

After a chance appearance in Come Back, Africa, a 1959 anti-Apartheid film produced by Lionel Rogosin, Makeba found herself thrust in to the spotlight of the media around the world, with ultimately mixed consequences. Her unique talent saw her reach New York and the attentions of Harry Belafonte, who helped to make her in to a star. However, this newfound stardom came at a terrible cost as the Apartheid South African government revoked her passport due to her perceived criticism of the regime in power of the time.

Thus began a 30 year struggle to return to the homeland that she loved so much. Her appearance at a United Nations convention, urging its members to boycott the South African government, will have done little to endear her to her persecutors but did attract the attention of Black Panther leader Stokely Carmichael, who would later become her husband.

Again, this caused problems for Makeba, who was boycotted by the music industry that had previously been so enamoured with her in the United States. Her tours were cancelled and her records were withdrawn from sale: the record companies could not be seen to be supporting her alliance with one of the most controversial political activists of the era.

Makeba would eventually reside in Guinea, after being hounded out of the United States, and her wonderfully evocative and passionate live performances would continue to win her fans all over the globe. After years of continued personal tragedy (her only daughter died at the age of 35) and continual performing, Makeba would return to South Africa after the release of Nelson Mandela, in 1990, finally providing some closure to her restless and agitated years of forced exile.

You will not be able to leave the cinema without humming along to ‘Pata Pata’: the song which, ironically, seems to sum up Makeba’s complicated life. It was one of her least favourite songs, as she thought it essentially meaningless in comparison to some of her other, more politically and socially aware, records; however she was grateful that it made people smile.

One cannot help but be won over by Makeba’s genuine kindness and compassion in the face of such direct personal adversity, and neither can one fail to be inspired by her perseverance, dignity and unfiltered talent. Mama Africa does a great job of bringing Makeba’s joy to a wider audience.

Reviewed on: 20 Jun 2011
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A documentary portrait of the acclaimed performer and political campaigner.
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Director: Mika Kaurismäki

Writer: Don Edkins, Mika Kaurismäki

Starring: Miriam Makeba

Year: 2011

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: Finland, Germany

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