By most accounts, Patrice Émery Lumumba was the George Washington — or the Ho Chi Minh, if you prefer — of his country. Born the son of a farmer in Kasai province in what was then the Belgian Congo and educated in a Roman Catholic missionary school, his early interest in poetry and the writings of Voltaire and Rousseau stirred egalitarian, nationalistic ideals in young Lumumba, leading him to organize the Congolese National Movement (MNC), which helped push for independence from Belgium in the late 1950s.
He was jailed for his efforts, but eventually won respect from anticolonialist Africans as well as from expedient members of the departing Belgian administration. Lumumba was the Congolese delegate to the Pan-African Conference of 1958, a time when many former colonies were breaking apart under pressure, and he was eventually appointed, at the age of 36, first prime minister of the new Republic of Congo in 1960 under President Joseph Kasavubu, on a decidedly anti-imperialist platform.
Unfortunately, Lumumba’s vision of a socialist-style republic of workers and farmers was only one of several competing postcolonial strategies. Intertribal enmity and clashing political philosophies, exacerbated by the meddling of multinational corporations, began to encircle the idealistic former poet. The Congo slowly broke down. Mutinies sprang up in the Force Publique, the national police force. Mineral-rich Katanga province, under the leadership of businessman/power broker Moise Tschombe, seceded from the republic. Whites were harassed on the street by the Force Publique, and many fled the country. Belgian army troops interceded in the “rescue” of threatened Europeans, while rumors of Soviet intervention arose (accurate rumors, as it happened). In response to the “Soviet threat,” the United States began procuring clients, including Gen. Joseph Mobutu (aka Mobutu Sese Seko), commander of the army (ANC), which had already flexed its muscle in attempted coups. This classic display of cynical postcolonial intrigue culminated in Lumumba’s arrest in December of 1960 and his subsequent murder in rebel-held Katanga province in January 1961, along with two of his allies.
Certainly the story of Patrice Lumumba needs telling. As a committed black African revolutionary and martyr to the cause of national liberation in the Third World, Lumumba ranks right up there with Chou En-Lai and Che Guevara as an international hero for progressives. His name is frequently mentioned in the same breath as those of Malcolm X and Franz Fanon in the pantheon of philosopher/fighters. Lumumba was a man of strong, socially responsible beliefs who was snuffed out by the callous, greedy forces of global capitalism (led by you-know-whom) — which is why it’s a shame that Raoul Peck’s French-Belgian-Haitian-German coproduction Lumumba (based on Peck’s earlier documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet and shot on location in Zimbabwe, Mozambique, and Belgium), a thoughtful docudrama that tries its best to celebrate the man’s beliefs and accomplishments, is such an uninviting piece of work.
Haitian-born, French-based director Peck, who has specialized in socially conscious documentaries and narratives since he took up filmmaking in the 1980s (after work as a journalist and photographer), has the good editorial sense to tell Lumumba’s life story in its proper context, amid the brutal realities of the rivalries for the Congo and its natural resources — but if there was ever a case of too much information in too little time, Lumumba is it. Peck and screenwriter/script doctor Pascal Bonitzer (My Favorite Season) feel the need to depict many of the complicated resentments among Lumumba and his political contemporaries, but they skimp on the personal details that can illuminate a character. What good does it do that we see Lumumba snubbing Tschombe at a party, or Lumumba’s humble visit to Brussels, but not a glimpse of his poor childhood under the Belgian crown? Sitting with Lumumba in the succession of conference rooms, listening to earnest speeches and trying to sort out the fragmented nature of Congolese society, we long for that bit of shorthand, that fillip of character that always seems just beyond the reach of Peck and actor Eriq Ebouaney — Peck’s stiff, righteous, wooden Lumumba.
Noble suffering — there’s plenty of that, as Lumumba is beaten in prison by the same thuggish European guards we’ve seen in all those films about South Africa. Lumumba just glares at his tormentors. We witness the divide-and-conquer technique of the “civilized persons” cards granted to well-behaved blacks, and Belgian troops’ dissing of elected black government leaders. To Peck’s credit, the US hand in Lumumba’s fate is not represented by a loud, swaggering Texan type, but by a soft-spoken bureaucrat, obviously more concerned with the health and welfare of the Katanga Mining Corporation than with the tangled affairs of these savages waving guns all over the place. When a Congolese soldier at a roadblock lets on that, “I’m smoking American cigarettes now,” we know the game is up. Once Mobutu is enthroned as the puppet president, he quickly declares Lumumba a national hero — a dead national hero, the best kind. Lumumba’s graphic death by firing squad, and the evidence-burning framing device, are Peck’s most dramatic touches.
But the movie spends comparatively little time on the human side of its subject, other than in brief family moments with L’s wife Pauline (played by Mariam Kaba) and on their daughter, who dies of hepatitis. Like Malcolm X, Lumumba is stoic and dignified to a fault. “Not coming to bed?” his wife asks. “I have to finish this,” replies the leader, worrying over a stack of his homeland’s ills. Naturally he falls asleep on top of his work. We wonder what a Spike Lee or a Claire Denis could have done with this man’s bio — or even an Oliver Stone, or how Soviet director Mikhail Kalatozov, maker of the poetic I Am Cuba, might have described everyday life in Lumumba’s Congo. John Singleton might have seen things in Leopoldville (now called Kinshasa, even though the name of the country has reverted from Zaire back to Congo) that could put the plights of the people there and the residents of South Central in sharp perspective. Parts of Peck’s narrative remind us of Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers, a far more gripping account of a national liberation movement, but there’s little of Pontecorvo’s tense urgency.
Lumumba unfolds in the manner of a dull history lesson taught by the sort of ideologues who consider little grace notes of emotion the ultimate Hollywood poison. It wouldn’t have hurt Peck to “sell out” just a little and take the great man off his pedestal occasionally. Maybe have him kick a dog or break wind. Lumumba tastes of medicine: It’s arguably good for us, but difficult to enjoy. It’s a prime example of how a historical drama can be politically correct but thoroughly embalmed. The memory of Patrice Lumumba deserves better.