NYADIFF REVIEW: Remembering ‘Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba’

The documentary Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba remembers the impact and influence of the famous South African singer, taking the audience from her early exile from her home country to her eventual return following the fall of apartheid. The film, expertly directed by Mika Kaurismäki, will play Dec. 3 at the Cinema Village as part of the New York African Diaspora International Film Festival.

Kaurismäki’s documentary is a love letter to its subject. Coupling archival footage with new interviews with family and friends who knew Makeba best, Mama Africa focuses on the music and positive messages that the singer shared with the world. Details about her activism, marriages and parenting are given some context, but the film is at its best when it lets Makeba sing with fervor and passion.

The concert footage is remarkably clear and telling; no wonder she became an international sensation. Makeba had the uncanny ability to sing in multiple languages, almost effortlessly, and she paired meaningful lyrics with catchy rhythms that would challenge the mind as much as one’s physical body. Is it possible to dance to a song of activism? The answer is yes.

There are times when the 90-minute feature falters over its own pacing. The narrative will build up to a crescendo, and then all of a sudden several years will pass in the chronology. One minute she’s living in the United States and speaking at the United Nations, and the next minute she’s living in Guinea. The transitions between these monumental moves are too short or missing altogether.

The new interviews are interesting and fun to hear. Makeba’s grandchildren are featured, and, in fact, her grandson revisits their family home in Guinea, which is a real treat. Hugh Masekela, a legendary South African trumpeter and ex-husband to Makeba, offers insight on the political turmoil of their country and how the exile affected the singer. Her bandmates delve into details on her musicianship and undeniable charity. It would seem that Makeba stuck to humility her entire life, even as her international fame rose considerably.

A highlight has to be Makeba’s rendition of “Soweto Blues,” which is played at multiple times in the film and showcases her talents and the strengths of this fine, fine documentary.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

Mama Africa: Miriam Makeba (2011) is part of the New York African Diaspora International Film Festival. Click here for more information and tickets. Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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