Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death

Michael Patrick Brady

This film 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.


Distributor: Art Mattan
Cast: Peter Bate(director), Elie Lison, Roger May, Steve Driesen, Imotep Tshilombo, Annette Kelly
MPAA rating: N/A
Network: BBC
First date: 2003
US Release Date: 2006-02-28

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.




'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.


Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.


Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.


Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.


British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.


Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".


In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.