We are first introduced to Congo Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba in the historical drama that bears his name as he is transported under cover of rural darkness in a caravan of cars to his own January 1961 execution. A narration begins—words from doomed man to his wife—that stitches together Raoul Peck’s fact-intensive but compelling story about the stiff price of freedom and the volatility and exploitation of an entire nation.
“We thought we controlled our destiny,” says Lumumba about himself and his supporters as their struggle for independence from Belgian colonial rule blossoms in the 1950s, “but other evil powers were pulling the strings.” That statement feeds the alleged complicity shown here of the CIA and United Nations in Lumumba’s death. It also refers to the Prime Minister’s Congolese rivals, including a former member of his own inner circle, and the Belgian imperialists who loosen control of their African colony in June 1960.
The bookends of the film are grisly. They depict Lumumba’s exhumation, dismemberment and cremation at the hands of two uniformed Caucasians. The message is both horrific and timely. Whether one considers Lumumba a freedom fighter or a subversive, it is impossible to defend the socio-political system or individuals responsible for such an atrocity, and possible to smell the same stench of crimes against humanity behind many of today’s international headlines. The gruesome deed (“Even dead I was still a threat to them,” says Lumumba) bleeds into every frame of the film, challenging us to channel our shock and disgust into a universal force that will strangle such rampant arrogance and depravity.
In between scenes of Lumumba’s final hours, Peck and Pascal Bonitzer’s script flashes back at length to Lumumba’s oscillating political career. The Stanleyville postal worker moves to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa), gets a job as a beer salesman and marketeer. He slides from idealistic, enthusiastic activist to beaten, dignity-drained prisoner, and then from provocative leader to fallen hero and martyr. It’s a journey that takes us from the town squares where Lumumba stirs up the local populace with talk of federal unity to a conference in Brussels to a Congo cabinet meeting interrupted by angry soldiers, from backroom negotiations crusted in compromise into streets filled with hate and bloodshed. It’s a tale that documents Lumumba’s collusion with Russian armed forces, and the lure and geopolitical ramifications of the Congo as a rich source of copper, commercial diamonds and petroleum.
The film fed me more information about the Congo than about the man of the title. Lumumba is pictured as stubborn, smart, courageous, foolish and committed—a dangerous mix for a black man trying to evolve in the shadow of white rule. He was a charismatic leader, yet his troops ran amok just two months after he took command. The reasons for his failures are rather obscure, and his family life and background is basically ignored. The portrait here is of interest but not totally satiating.
Peck, a former Haitian cultural minister who lived in the Congo as a child, also made the 1991 documentary Lumumba—Death of a Prophet. He establishes a convincing time and place, but not clarity of character.
Eriq Ebouaney’s potent title performance brought to mind Denzel Washington’s turn as Malcolm X. He felt real but did not quite match Washington’s passion and anger. Other players include Pascal N’Zonzi as secessionist Moïse Tshombe, Alex Descas as journalist-turned-general-turned-dictator Joseph Mobutu and Maka Kotto as President Joseph Kasa Vubu.
“History will have its say someday,” says Lumumba. But right now it seems busy repeating itself. After Congo was given its independence, Laurent Kabila served in a youth group allied with Lumumba. Kabila seized power in 1997 from Mobutu and 50 years to the month of Lumumba’s death was assassinated. His son is now president. He is accused of being more of an ally to the West than his own people. Mining Minister Simon Bawangamio Tumawako has called for outsiders to invest in the country’s vast natural resources: “The Congo may be considered a sleeping beauty, so it’s up to you to be the first prince to wake her up.” Sounds more like a recurring nightmare than a fairy tale to me.