wed 26/06/2019

Storyville: The Queen of Africa - The Miriam Makeba Story, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

Storyville: The Queen of Africa - The Miriam Makeba Story, BBC Four

Storyville: The Queen of Africa - The Miriam Makeba Story, BBC Four

The compelling tale of the singer and activist they called Mama Africa

Miriam Makeba and her husband Stokely Carmichael arrive in Washington

We had Kevin MacDonald’s Bob Marley epic documentary earlier this year, and this is a similar film about another artist who became a symbol as much as a singer. I only saw Miriam Makeba in her sixties, by which time she had become a revered institution they called Mama Africa, as though she was the mother of an entire continent. This Storyville documentary took us back the amazing vibrancy and courage of her early years, with some terrific archive footage.

By the 1990s, although her long exile from South Africa was over, Makeba had been bashed around by events, notably the death of her daughter Bongi, who wrote many of her songs, and the bitter realisation that her vision of a free united Africa was not going to happen. Indeed from her birth, Makeba's life had its tragic trajectory – her mother, who was a Sangoma, or traditional healer, was arrested when Makeba was 18 days old for brewing illegal beer and imprisoned for six months. Her father died when she was six. She married at 17, had her daughter and when she developed breast cancer her husband abandoned her.

She became friends with many of the leaders of Africa’s newly decolonised nations

The Finnish director Mika Kaurismaki tells a riveting story and gets some key interviews, notably with her ex-husband, the trumpeter Hugh MasekelaAmong the highlights are the images of Johannesburg nightlife in the 1950s. Black musicians like Makeba would sing at the houses of sympathetic whites. When tipped off the police were coming they would change into maids' and servants' outfits. She had probably her greatest hit “Pata, Pata” ,by the time she was 24 in 1956, a song she regretted in some ways as it was a “nonsense” song. She was passionate, magical and sexy - Masekela here compared her at one point to Marilyn Monroe.

The film moved on to her in exile in the States, where she married Masekela, met JFK and gave an astonishingly composed speech denouncing apartheid to the United Nations, and achieved considerable musical success. When the marriage failed “we were too much like brother and sister" said Masekela. She took up with the charismatic Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael who became the third of five husbands and her American tours and record deals were abruptly cancelled. She was forced into a second exile. In one telling interview Makeba was asked the difference between apartheid South Africa and the United States. “At least they are honest in South Africa,” she replied acidly.

The couple moved back to Africa, to Guinea, and she became friends with many of the leaders of Africa’s newly decolonised nations at a point when there was widespread optimism for the future of the continent. She picked her home in a part of Guinea that reminded her of South Africa.  Iconic leaders like Senghor, Lumumba and Sekou Touré adored her, as did Nelson Mandela – and the film made a case for her almost as a female Mandela, with the same weight of moral authority. At the same time, some of the musical performances here were electrifying. 

Eventually, Makeba returned to South Africa after Mandela's release. Her native country, where all her records had been banned, rediscovered her. She went to her mother’s grave, whose funeral she had been forbidden from attending. The whole sweep of her life has an epic quality and if anything needs a least a feature-length film to encompass it rather than the hour allotted here. But Kaurismaki has done an excellent job, although it would take a singularly hamfisted filmmaker not to make Makeba’s story a compelling one.

Miriam Makeba sings "Pata, Pata",  below:

This film makes a case for her almost as a female Mandela, with the same weight of moral authority

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters