Legendary political figures — not to mention martyrs like Patrice Lumumba — don’t always make the best subjects for films. Credibly capturing the human drama against a backdrop of historical change is often too daunting for all but the most dogged agitprop artist, hagiographer, or Hollywood hack. And with a man like Lumumba, there’s always that pesky added problem of having to show western audiences a squalid, thuggish past they’d rather not acknowledge. Lumumba, like many a nationalist working to free his country from European and American colonialism, was murdered soon after becoming prime minister of the former Belgian Congo, now Zaire. While some of the details remain a little foggy, he was by most accounts another victim of the ever-industrious C.I.A. in league with local reactionaries happy to dispatch one of their own — along with their country — for personal gain under the convenient cover of anticommunism.
Director Raoul Peck, educated in Haiti, Zaire, and France, has tackled Lumumba twice now — once in 1990 in a documentary and now in Lumumba, a brisk, often riveting feature film that navigates with surprising success the dicey territory between idolatrous biography and whirlwind historical drama. While it would certainly help in terms of understanding the players to read up on this complex history before watching the film, it may be just as satisfying to sacrifice some of the details and surrender to the power of the story.
The credit sequence is a casually unsettling panorama of historical photographs that recall Belgium’s 80-year rule of the Congo — smiling white Belgians in plush digs and fancy duds being guarded by stiff, staring locals or posing in front of the barely noticeable body of a lynched Congolese. The story proper extends this grim tableau with a creepy coda to its subject’s life, as the bodies of Lumumba and two of his allies are hacked to pieces and burned by two drunken Belgian soldiers under orders to leave no trace of the men. (One of these men later went insane, it’s worth noting.) This daring approach to structuring Lumumba’s rise and fall sets the tone for the whole film, which is more episodic than linear and flashes backward and forward with the same sense of urgency and chaos that marked the martyred leader’s brief life.
Lumumba’s education and radicalization coincided with worldwide attempts to shake off colonial masters. Self-educated, he went from beer salesman (“Polar, the queen of beers!”) to political prisoner to prime minister with breathless speed. The film tracks this progression in vivid vignettes that show both Lumumba’s charisma, which created instant crowds and mobilized average citizens to follow him in demanding independence; and his tenuous position, as the local police and military, serving Belgian interests, jail and brutalize him.
What’s most fascinating about the film is the dizzying series of maneuvers among the competing interests trying to take control of the ore-rich nation — other tribal groups like Moise Tshombe’s; a splintered military; the Belgians who can’t stand to let go; the CIA and U.S. government that want their part; the Soviets, who also smell profit; the UN, which quietly backs Belgium; and most tellingly, Lumumba’s liberation group that’s under constant threat from its own leaders — Joseph Kasa Vubu, who gives a grimly fawning speech for Belgian ears when he’s elected president; and military leader Joseph Mobutu, a key player in Lumumba’s death who would go on to become a despot of world-class stature. Peck renders this battle of wills with authority in schizoid scenes of the army attacking both white Belgian settlers and the black leadership; in quiet entries and exits of C.I.A. and Belgian functionaries; and in increasingly ominous encounters between Lumumba and his enemies both Belgian and black African.
Lumumba’s desperation is beautifully crystallized in a sequence in which he attempts to stop small factions of marauding bandits from a rape-and-pillage campaign. Traveling by light plane, he attempts to land in Tshombe’s territory but is refused; when he demands that the pilot land anyway, the pilot balks, saying he’s received “other orders.” From here Lumumba’s decline is precipitous and horrific. A mere two months after his ascension to office he was murdered and mutilated, in January 1961, and the country was seized by “father-king” Mobutu, who would continue amassing vast wealth and pulverizing Zaire into the late 1990s.
Actor Eriq Ebouaney (L’Agression, Seventh Heaven) powerfully evokes both the charisma and the limitations of Lumumba’s my-way-or-the-highway attitude. (Some commentators have assigned part of the blame for his demise to Lumumba’s uncompromising personality.) Alex Descas’s incarnation of Mobutu is also chillingly effective, a smiling mask of cooperation and soft-spokenness who wreaks havoc without fanfare. Inevitably there are less heralded victims in such a story, among them Lumumba’s wife and family, who are marginalized in the film. Perhaps this simply reflects how it was with a man of Lumumba’s ambitions. At any rate, Peck’s interests, like Lumumba’s, lie far from hearth and home in this superior example of a difficult genre.