Movie Review: Lumumba

By Louis Proyect (July 16, 2001)

Except for Gilles Pontecorvo's "Burn," Raul Peck's "Lumumba" is the only film to explore neocolonialism in the depth it deserves. But unlike "Burn," "Lumumba" deals with real people and real events -- in this case the conspiracy of US intelligence, the Belgian government and local traitors to keep an African people in chains despite the formal independence won in 1960.

Cast as Patrice Lumumba, Eriq Ebouaney not only bears a striking physical resemblance to the martyred leader, more importantly he conveys the political and personal drama of a politician caught between two worlds. Believing in little else except social justice and national sovereignty -- two of the cardinal tenets of bourgeois democracy -- he was dogged at every step, and finally assassinated, by their agents.

The film introduces Lumumba in 1960 as an enterprising beer salesman who hawks the Polar brand at local Leopoldville pubs by day, while attending meetings for independence from Belgium at night.

Since the film is not a documentary, it cannot really pay much attention to the kind of degradation Belgium visited on the Congo under King Leopold, whose eponymously named capital city makes as much sense as calling a city Hitlerville. Instead it presents a vivid portrait of the kind of second-class citizenship experienced by the average citizens, who are depicted as porters, maids and drivers for he pampered colonial in 1960 -- bad enough in itself.

To fill in the historical detail, one must turn to Adam Hochschild's 1998 book, "King Leopold's Ghost," that points out that in the years between 1885 and 1908, some 10 million people died in the so-called Congo Free State, which was anything but free. It was, in fact, a giant forced labor camp, the personal possession of Leopold II, king of Belgium. For nearly 30 years, his armed thugs forced the Congolese to extract ivory, hardwoods and wild rubber from their homeland. Many were beaten to death for failing to meet strict quotas, while millions more died from physical exhaustion, famine and infectious disease. This sort of vampire capitalism bred underdevelopment in the Congo, while feeding the growth of industry, museums and universities in the mother country.

When Lumumba was elected Prime Minister, he was forced to share duties with Joseph Kasavubu, a timid and temporizing bourgeois politician. Played by Maka Kotto, he is depicted in an independence ceremony kowtowing to Belgian officials, who have warned the Congolese: "Beware of hasty reforms, and do not replace Belgian institutions unless you are sure you can do better."

Despite warnings not to offend their benefactors, Lumumba will have none of this. With a proud scowl on his face, he begins his speech with the following words: "Our wounds are too fresh and painful for us to erase them from our memory." Kasavubu is shown squirming in his seat.

In contrast to Kasavubu, you have two other Congolese politicians who become open supporters of neocolonialism. One is the young Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas), an aspiring journalist and soon to become military strongman. After slaughtering anti-government civilians in the early stages of civil unrest in the newly independent Congo, Lumumba dresses down Mobutu. Anxious not to alienate his supporters in the west, the new prime minister tells Mobutu that such ruthlessness will work against them. In short order, however, Lumumba will learn that they are determined to destroy the infant nation and return it to bondage no matter what they do.

From the very moment of independence, the colonists have made common cause with Moise Tshombe (Pascal Nzonzi), the virulently anti-Communist leader of the breakaway province of Katanga, where most of the nation's mineral wealth is located. As I learned from a Socialist Workers Party pamphlet being hawked outside the theater, "Most of Katanga's mineral reserves are owned and mined by a giant U.S.-British-Belgian controlled corporation, the Union Miniere du Haut Katanga (UMHK). In 1960, with annual sales of $200 million, UMHK produced 60 percent of the uranium in the West, 73 percent of the cobalt, and 10 percent of the copper, and had in the Congo 24 affiliates including hydroelectric plants, chemical factories and railways."

Essentially, the film dramatizes the shifting power relations between these four principals, who each in their own way owes their allegiance to one or another major class in society. Lumumba is closest to the Congolese masses. After Kasavubu cashiers him from office, he goes to parliament to fight for reinstatement. At the front gates of the building, hundreds of ordinary citizens have spontaneously rallied to defend him.

After the country begins to fray around the edges, largely due to destabilization efforts mounted by the colonists, Mobutu is shown in a meeting with Belgian officials and CIA official Frank Carlucci. If the military can "restore order," they promise to back him. For his part, Carlucci claims that the United States does not intervene in the internal affairs of sovereign nations but assures them that it will do nothing to act against Mobutu. At this point the audience broke out in sardonic laughter.

Towards the end of his short-lived administration (two months in fact), Lumumba declared that he would turn to the Russians for support. After discovering continuing efforts by the west to destabilize and overthrow his government, it appeared that this was his only recourse. Although this would have helped, it seemed that the biggest obstacle remained internal. Put in the most succinct terms, Lumumba was a politician who sought to rule through conventional measures while counter-revolutionary violence was being organized all around him. In this period, one such attempt after another was being thwarted in exactly the same manner, from Arbenz in Guatemala to Mossadegh in Iran.

The film's director and co-writer, who was born in Haiti, saw Lumumba as a Christ-like figure. "One of the things that struck me about Lumumba was the dignity he had," Peck says. "As he was being led to his execution, people were slapping him, abusing him, and the two other prisoners were scared to death. They know they are going to die, but Lumumba is already somewhere else. He is above death. And he reminds me of the sentence Christ delivered about his killers, 'Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.'" (Los Angeles Times July 15, 2001)

He continued:

"Lumumba inspired the same feelings in Africa that African Americans had in America with the new Kennedy era. In the U.S. you had the civil rights movement going on, and in Africa in 1960 and '61, you had 25 African countries winning their independence. The whole world had hopes, and you had great leaders like Nasser in Egypt, Sekou Toure in Guinea and Nkrumah in Ghana speaking to Lumumba like big brothers. So he represented a moment of exhilaration. You felt as though you had a future and could aim towards something. When he was killed, many people became interested in politics for the first time, and there were demonstrations all over the world. This film attempts to capture that turning point in history, where everything was still possible for Africa."

Filming on location in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Belgium, Peck was scrupulous about re-creating the time and political milieu. For example, a band performs a soukous number called "The Independence Cha-Cha-Cha," that Lumumba (and he) danced to in the '60s.

As the son of a Haitian diplomat in the Congo, Peck has special insights into the colonial situation. His family, educated, honored and bourgeois, was at the forefront of both nations' struggles for political and economic sovereignty. Although he served two months in Aristide's government as minister of culture, Peck became disillusioned with the president-priest whom he eventually regarded as corrupt.

Perhaps the film is part of Peck's ongoing struggle to define a path for the colonized of the world that avoids the sort of bitter disappointments experienced in Haiti and the Congo.

In the final scene of the film, we see a bloodied Lumumba about to face the firing squad. Composing a letter to his wife in his mind, he says, "We have to write our history ourselves." Essentially this is what Peck's film is about as well. Now being held over at New York City's Film Forum, this is one for the ages.

Copyright (c) 2001 Louis Proyect. All Rights Reserved. E-mail: &Website:

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