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Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death

(BBC; US DVD: 28 Feb 2006)

When one thinks of the great criminals of history, those whose crimes against humanity were so vile and repugnant that their names have become shorthand for evil and malice, King Leopold II of Belgium may not immediately spring to mind. His crimes are eclipsed in history by the atrocities of the Second World War, which sits heavy on the timeline of the 20th century.


Those who came before are largely ignored or forgotten, yet many who live today still benefit from such crimes, as the criminal acts may be the very origins of a nation’s modern wealth and prosperity. But the memory of King Leopold II does live on, scattered in the oral traditions of the descendants of his victims, the citizens of the Congo, whose country and people were crippled (figuratively and literally) by the harsh, brutal colonial regime which occupied them and served the whims of the King.


Peter Bate’s horrifying documentary, Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death takes viewers back to the Congo Free State of King Leopold II, and the vicious 23-year ordeal the people of that nation suffered for the enrichment of a nation they would never see. The documentary does a good job at presenting its evidence, explaining the circumstances surrounding Leopold’s reign over the Congo, and detailing the courageous individuals who campaigned to bring an end to the terror and reveal the dirty secrets behind the colonial idealism of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.


Bate’s portrayal is by no means impartial, and the accusatory tone is reinforced time and time again. The director puts Leopold II on trial, in carefully staged scenes where an actor portraying the Belgian King must face the charges against him, before Bate launches into each devastating examination of the history.


Narrator Nick Frasier does an admirable job, though the fierceness of his delivery may put viewers expecting a more measured approach to the material off balance. This film has passion and emotion to such an extent that it colors the familiar documentary elements.  Ultimately the film is an undeniably angry account of this piece of history.  This lack of impartiality doesn’t harm the film (the matter of what happened in the Congo is not in dispute), but rather gives it a conscience. At times, the relentlessness can be exhausting, and the magnitude of the subject can feel overwhelming, but Bate is determined to impress upon his audience that this is a tragedy worth remembering.


One of the most powerful sequences is also one of its most sedate. Early in the film, Bate follows Elikia M’Bokolo, a Congolese native and professor of history at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales in Paris, to Brussels. Watching M’Bokolo look out off a high balcony over the city and view the grand old buildings and monuments that Leopold II built with the money derived from his Congo colony, one can’t help but feel a twinge of sadness that so many lives were squandered for this. It encourages viewers to consider the source of their own country’s prosperity, and the responsibility that everyone shares in the endeavors of their nation.


Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death returns the plight of the Congolese to the forefront of our consciousness. In its time, it became a humanitarian cause célèbre, and Leopold became the target of satirists like Mark Twain King Leopold’s Soliloquy) and the poet Vachel Lindsay, who coolly sentenced the Belgian King to an eternity of retribution:


Listen to the yell of Leopold’s ghost
Burning in Hell for his hand-maimed host
Hear how the demons chuckle and yell
Cutting his hands off, down in Hell
“The Congo”


To allow these events to sink into the darkness of the past and forget the wickedness that in many ways forged the modern world is to absolve a criminal of his crimes and to dishonor the efforts of those who fought to shine light on them and bring the madness to an end. This is not an easy story to sit through, nor does it end with a particularly uplifting result, but it does show that even the most powerful men and their recklessness can be curbed; it just takes brave and determined people willing to speak out and speak the truth.


The DVD also contains a bonus documentary, Boma-Tervuren, The Journey, directed by Francis Dujardin. This hour-long film explores the story of 267 Congolese taken from their homes and shipped to Brussels to be exhibited at the 1867 World’s Fair. In this feature, contemporary Congolese travel to Belgium to explore the tragic history of their ancestors, who were treated as a traveling human zoo, mistreated, and allowed to succumb to illness, their bodies buried in a mass grave. The confrontation between past and present depicted in both films has tremendous impact and helps to humanize the events that transpired so long ago (thought its monuments still stand) and, for some, in a place that only seems far away, but for others, it is all too close.

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Michael Patrick Brady is a writer and editor from Boston. His work has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Boston Phoenix, Forbes.com, and ALARM Magazine, among others. Like all those who have more opinions than places to put them, he maintains a blog and collects his various publications at his website.


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