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Engrossing docu “Mama Africa” uses choice archival footage and vibrant interviews to trace the life and career of charismatic South African singer and anti-apartheid activist Miriam Makeba (1932-2008) over more than 50 years. Exploring Makeba’s legacy as artist, crusader, mother and grandmother, Finnish helmer Mika Kaurismaki (“Brasileirinho”) shows the influential musician in the context of her turbulent times. A nice companion piece to the new Harry Belafonte docu “Sing Your Song,” pic should fit neatly into broadcast and cabler schedules, with a long life in ancillary. Niche arthouse play is possible in some markets.

Possessing a unique melodic voice (abundantly on display in the performance footage, including appearances with Paul Simon and on “The Ed Sullivan Show”), and singing in Xhosa and Zulu as well as English, Makeba became the first African musician to become a well-known international star. Banned from her homeland after U.S. director Lionel Rogosin’s 1959 apartheid expose, “Come Back Africa” (in which she appeared), took top prize at the Venice Film Festival, she landed a performing gig at New York’s Village Vanguard; the reminiscences of lively octogenarian club owner Lorraine Gordon provide a real treat here. But Makeba was soon swept into a higher stratosphere by Belafonte (always respectful, pic never specifies the exact nature of their relationship). Sharp news footage shows her treated like royalty as she traveled the world, meeting with many African heads of state.

Makeba’s 1968 marriage to former Black Panther Stokely Carmichael inspired an almost immediate cancellation of her U.S. concert bookings and gave rise to some ugly threats. The couple moved to Guinea at the invitation of that country’s president a year later.

Always yearning for her homeland during her years in exile, she continued to provide a strong voice urging democratic change there, as her song lyrics and moving testimony before the United Nations made clear. When Nelson Mandela assumed the presidency, Makeba returned home to directly influence another generation of musicians.

Although the film is most enthralling when Makeba is onscreen, other prime tidbits include performance footage of her talented daughter Bongi (who died in childbirth at the age of 35), glorious black-and-white photos from Makeba’s time fronting girl group the Skylarks, and the revelation that until her marriage to Carmichael, she was close to then-Israel prime minister Golda Meir.

At 91 minutes, the pic feels a tad long, and despite fine, rhythmic editing throughout, the second-half coverage of Makeba’s twilight years is not as engaging as the depiction of her rise. Scenes of her grandson Nelson Lumumba Lee walking through a Conakry market and a memorial party would profit from judicious trims.

As befits the film’s subject, sound quality is clear and resonant.

Mama Africa

Germany-South Africa-Finland

  • Production: A Panorama Entertainment (in Germany) release of a Starhaus Filmproduktion, Millenium Films, Mariana Films, ZDF/Arte production in cooperation with the Miriam Makeba Foundation with support from YLE TV2, SWR, ORF, NTR, SVT. (International sales: Fortissimo, Amsterdam.) Produced by Rainer Kolmel. Co-producers, Don Edkins, Mika Kaurismaki, Hans Robert Eisenhauer. Directed by Mika Kaurismaki. Written by Kaurismaki, Edkins.
  • Crew: Camera (color/B&W, HD), Jacques Cheuiche, Wolfgang Held, Frank Lehmann, Martina Radwan, Eran Tahor; editors, Karen Harley, Uwe Dresch, Andre Bendocchi-Alves; music, Andreas Schilling; music supervisor, Uwe Kirbach; sound (Digital 5.1) Uwe Dresch. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Dokumente), Feb. 10, 2011. Running time: 91 MIN.
  • With: With: Miriam Makeba, Zenzi Monique Lee, Nelson Lumumba Lee, Hugh Masekela, Angelique Kidjo, Abigail Kubeka, Dorothy Masuku, Joe Mogotsi, Leopoldo Fleming, William "Bill" Salter, Kathleen Neal Cleaver, Lorraine Gordon. (English, French dialogue)
  • Music By: