Lumumba begins on 17 January 1961, the day when Patrice Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney) was tortured and murdered. As the camera passes over his bruised and bloody body, his voice-over, taken from a letter to his wife, ponders the motives and fears of his enemies. He observes that the Congolese soldiers who have been assigned to kill him, along with two compatriots, will make sure that the corpses are never recovered or buried, for a public memorial will only bring upset and potentially, outrage. Instead, his former allies will mourn his death in public, as if they didn’t have a hand in it. And their performance will be crucial for their own survival. “Even dead,” Lumumba says, “I was still a threat to them.”
Indeed, details concerning Lumumba’s “threat,” the identities of those responsible for his death, and the disturbing depth of the Congo’s political conflicts are still emerging. (It so happens that, just as Lumumba opens in some U.S. cities on Friday, ABC’s Nightline will be concluding a five-part series on the civil war that continues to ravage the country, where 2.5 million people have been killed in only three years.) At this point, most analysts agree that the assassination involved the Belgian government, the United States, and by extension, the United Nations, whose soldiers were assigned to protect the recently removed Prime Minister Lumumba, but did nothing to stop his murder.
Raoul Peck’s moving, poignant, and quietly angry film accuses all of these participants, but concentrates on Lumumba’s emotional, interpersonal, and political struggles. After its discomforting beginning, the movie jumps back to the earliest stages of his career, in Stanleyville in 1957 and ‘58, where he makes the leap from beer salesman to union organizer and member of the nationalist political party, the Congolese National Movement (MNC). Here he meets the young but already volatile Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas), who will mature into the infamous dictator: “This is not a military coup,” he says much later, when Lumumba is removed from office and Mobutu and his soldiers take over the government, “It is a peaceful revolution.”
As these two men bond and fight during the lengthy process to free the Congo from Belgium’s brutal colonial rule (which has been in place since 1885), they reveal similarities as much as emphatic differences. Both are energetic, self-absorbed, and hotheaded; both speak passionately about their dreams of a democratic Congo and are fast to argue with their adversaries. But where Mobutu is fierce and withdrawn, Lumumba’s charismatic brilliance and his skills as a public speaker make him more obviously threatening to those looking to maintain Belgian interests in the area. When the Congolese government is finally formed, Lumumba agrees to serve in a coalition government, as Prime Minister for President Joseph Kusa Vubu (Maka Kotto), leader of the party opposed to the MNC. However, it is clear that the president is not so determined to break from Belgium’s well-connected officials as Lumumba.
The film argues that none of these characters is faultless, and that Mubutu and Kusa Vubu’s eventual betrayals of their comrade have more to do with their fears and manipulation by others—including the diffident U.S. Ambassador and the smugly racist Belgian bureaucrat Ganshof Van der Meersch (Andre Debaar)—than their personal feelings for Lumumba. Still, their increasing jealousy is manifest as they watch him move the members of the Congolese Parliament to their feet with his rousing speeches. On 30 June 1960, Independence Day, against the warnings not to rile the Belgians, Lumumba specifies the abuses suffered by black Africans at the hands of the Belgians, who are now claiming they actually “led the way” to Congolese self-government and awaiting “proof” that “trust” in their former subjects is deserved. His speech is a turning point—even beyond the elections that have put Lumumba in the position to make it—for his public sees now that he will not compromise with the imperialists. This point is also recognized by the Belgians, of course, and essentially seals his fate.
Haitian-born filmmaker Raoul Peck’s interest in Patrice Lumumba began years ago, when he was a child and his father, fleeing Duvalier’s dictatorship in Haiti, worked for the UN in the Congo during the 1960s. Ten years ago, Peck made a documentary, Lumumba: la mort du prophete, tracing the history and intrigue that he revisits in the feature film, which he describes as a “political thriller” rather than a biography, capturing Lumumba’s speedy rise and fall with deft narrative strokes and riveting, beautifully composed scenes, shot by Bernard Lutic to create not only a sense of urgency, but also a heightened sensitivity to emotional details, light and shadows work together in a kind of sublime tension. Lumumba himself is perpetually caught between wanting to change everything all at once, and wanting to assert his own power and to establish his right to it. At one point, Congolese soldiers, still being commanded by white Belgian officers, take hostages to protest the racism still afflicting their daily lives. When a group of the soldiers storms Lumumba’s office, interrupting a meeting with his advisors, he takes control immediately, challenging their display of weapons and obvious rage with his own steely resolve.
While the film outlines the complicated historical circumstances, it is more interested in the personalities and the events, so it helps if you have some knowledge of the context before you go in. That said, the film inspires interest in its subject, following his uncompromising lead, painting him as a resilient, righteously angry hero. This means that a lot is left out. His personal life is reduced to background for the political crises (he decides to give up the fight when he’s under house arrest and learns that his ailing infant daughter has died in Switzerland). And his wife Pauline (Mariam Kaba) and preteen daughter appear occasionally, confined to domestic moments, but offering commentary by their presence alone, as when his daughter walks through their new Prime Minister’s residence on moving day, and a white worker taunts her with an African mask, treating her as if she is the interloper. The shot lingers for a moment on her face, as she stands poised in the hallway, her eyes unwavering, curious, but also ready. Then the film cuts to the man with the mask, making monster-noises. The effect is chilling.
The film closes with an equally affecting image: with the camera slowly zooming in on the soldiers dismembering and burning Lumumba’s body, the film suggests that in these flames, dreams may be reborn. Given the odds and forces arrayed against the Congolese people—most set in motion by seemingly unstoppable Western nations—this suggestion appears, for an instant, naive. But Peck’s film makes a powerful case for hope, nonetheless.