Unrated. Running time:1 hour 55 min.
Our content rating: Violence 7; Language 4; Sex/Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 5
Haitian film director Raoul Peck became interested in the tragic fate of Patrice Lumumba in 1963 when his father sought refuge for the family from the Duvalier dictatorship by moving to the Congo. This was just two years after Lumumba’s murder, and for the next 25 years Peck lived in that troubled country, attending schools in Leopoldville, Brooklyn, NY, France, and then film school in Germany. After making several films and teaching film (he worked with Krzysztof Kieslowski and Agnieszka Holland while teaching in France), he returned to Haiti, where he became Minister of Culture in the government of Prime Minister Rosny Smarth after the restoration of democratic rule. However, turmoil overcame that government also, and he left the country to take up filmmaking again. Lumumba is not his first film about the Congo’s first prime minister—in 1992 he directed and produced the feature-length documentary Lumumba—Death of a Prophet. I bring up these details to show that this docudrama, which has received so little publicity, is of more than a casual interest of this talented filmmaker.
Those of us who have read Barbara Kingsolver’s novel The Poisonwood Bible already know something of our country’s sad complicity in the betrayal and murder of the independent-minded statesman. This film provides far more details, chronicling the events leading up to the Congo’s independence from what was one of the most despotic and cruelest of all the nations that had held Africans in chains, Belgium. Matters moved so fast that one day Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney) was beaten to within an inch of his life in a dungeon, and the next released, cleaned up, and whisked off to the European conference where the future of the nation was being debated. He emerges as one of the leaders possessed of a vision of a nation uniting all the fractious tribes and standing firm against any post-colonial domination by white powers.
Lumumba runs afoul of the CIA and other agencies by his determination to keep the rich resources of the Katanga province for the Congo, rather than to allow the Belgian and American countries to carry them away. His harsh manner gets in the way at times, making enemies of other powerful Congolese willing to sell out to foreign powers. When they fear that he will accept help from the Russians (both the film and Barbara Kingsolver maintain that Lumumba was bluffing), the CIA buys his overthrow for a million dollars paid to the man whom Lumumba had mentored, Joseph Mobuto (Alex Descas). And thus, arises another of the dictatorial monsters created by the anti-Communist paranoia of the times.
If the film is correct, Africa lost the opportunity of erecting a stable, democratic government when Patrice Lumumba was killed. The film simplifies the many complex issues and happenings during Lumumba’s brief months of power, and it gives us just a hint of his personal life, his loyal and long-suffering wife Pauline played effectively by Mariam Kaba. The film pulls no punches in depicting his brutal murder, so it might not be for everyone. But for those looking for some insight into history and an example of a brave man facing death, this is a film well worth the effort in searching it out.
Reprinted from the Feb. 2002 VP.