Lumumba

 

Robin Clifford 
Laura Clifford 

On June 30, 1960, a self-taught, idealistic, yet pragmatic, young man became, at age 36, the first head of government of a newly independent African state, formerly the Belgian Congo. Two months later, he was ousted from his powerful position and hunted by government troops until he was captured and brutally murdered along with two aides. This little-known story of this meteoric rise and fall is told my international filmmaker Raoul Peck in "Lumumba."

Robin:
Patrice Lumumba's (Eriq Ebouaney) story has been told previously by helmer Peck in his 1991 award winning documentary, "Lumumba -   Death of a Prophet," virtually guaranteeing that his new, fictional account of a patriot remains true to its subject. Peck, with co-writer Pascal Bonitzer, begins at the end of the story of the young political leader. We watch as two white men perform the gruesome task of dismembering the bodies of three black men. Images of hatchets, saws and fast-emptying whiskey bottles accompany the grisly image.

Jump back a few years to a meeting among the black leaders in the Belgian-owned Congo. A third class postal worker, Lumumba, speaks his mind to heads of the most powerful tribes, proclaiming himself not tribal, not regional, but a national leader. His small, mobile party, the Congolese National Movement (MNC) is gaining prominence and Patrice leaves his clerical job to sell beer, and get his face known, in the bustling capital, Stanleyville. At a time when the colonial empires are falling down around the world, Lumumba is in the right place at the right time and, through political savvy and chess-like manipulation, achieves a position of leadership of the MNC. As the date for independence approaches, he tactically positions himself to be the new nation's first prime minister and defense minister, supporting the presidency of Joseph Kasa Vubu (Maka Kotto).

The coalition he created soon starts to fall apart as the former Belgian masters continue to exert influence on the struggling nation as they strive to maintain economic hold on the country's vast natural resources of copper, diamonds, gold and more. Lumumba won't seek the help of the US, knowing that they would try to create de facto American control of the fledgling government. His initial investigation into Soviet assistance immediately tags Patrice as a communist and his integrity is overshadowed by the Cold War threat of Russian domination. The situation goes from bad to worse as the army mutinies, the remaining whites begin to evacuate or arm themselves, Belgian troops violently intervene, the lucrative Katanga province succeeds under the leadership of rival Moise Tschombe (Pascal Nzonzi) and Lumumba is refused access to his own country when he returns from a conference abroad.

This tumultuous and little known period of modern African history saw a score of nations struggling for independence from the sometimes-odious colonialists who have ruled much of the world from their European seats of power for centuries. Peck focuses his story on familiar material that strives to give an honest portrayal of Patrice Lumumba, his friend and foes and the independence movements that gripped Africa in the 50's and 60's. (During the time the story takes place, many new nations, including Nigeria and Somalia, were born, with varying degrees of success and failure, usually dependent upon which country colonized them. Some colonial masters were better than others.)

The effort involved in "Lumumba" is quite ambitious as Peck and his crew before and behind the camera strive to bring to life this slice of world history that might have gone unexplored for decades, if at all. Production values are first rate on what must be a small, by US standards, budget. The period feel and realistic African settings are nicely maintained in a production that traveled from Zimbabwe to Mozambique.

The screenplay covers a lot of ground and does yeoman's work in providing a great deal of detailed history while trying to do justice to the story of Lumumba's life. The political side of things is evenly told in a linear, straightforward manner that teaches, not preaches. It concentrates on the good deeds of the man, if a bit as a stalwart saint, but doesn't embellish on a larger than life persona. The family side of Patrice's life is handled in several, perfunctory and brief interludes that show him talking to one of his children, embracing his wife or lamenting the death of his child. I know the intent is to flesh the man out, but too short a shrift is given to the family man side of Lumumba. The story, as such, has a lopsided feel about it.

High marks go to Eriq Ebouaney as the title character. The actor gives a convincing, charismatic performance as the multifaceted, politically deft Patrice Lumumba who has the good of his people and his country as the force driving his own ambitions. In true docudrama tradition, the supporting cast does not outshine the star, complementing his good efforts, instead.

"Lumumba" is a solid, interesting, educational and honest docudrama that should appeal to film buffs and politicos, both. It has more intelligence in its telling than anything I've seen out of Hollywood for months and I give it a B+.

Laura:
On June 30, 1960, Belgium conceded the Congo's independence and Patrice Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney, "When the Cat's Away") became it's first Prime Minister.  His passion for a unified Congo, suspicion of the West and friendship with the Soviet Union enabled a complex web of enemies, including the CIA and former friend Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas, "I Can't Sleep"), to discredit him and seize power in a move described by Mobutu as 'peaceful revolution, not coup d'etat.'  Cowriter (with Pascal Bonitzer)/director Raoul Peck, winner of the 2001 Human Rights Watch Lifetime Achievement award, explores a courageous life in "Lumumba."

'Even dead I was a threat to them' intones narrator Ebouaney as we witness the dismemberment and burning of his body by two Belgian soldiers. >From this horrific flashback we trace the life of Lumumba from 1954, where as a postal clerk in Leopoldville (Kinshasa) he became active in politics.  After a year spent in prison, Lumumba founded the Congolese National Movement.

After bloody clashes and independence won, Lumumba refused to pander to the Belgians, who continued a condescending and paternalistic relationship with the Congo.  Their officers, particularly General Janssens (Rudi Delhem) in the Force Publique, the Congo's Army, caused rebellions, undermining Lumumba, who was outraged at the rape and murder of Belgian nationals.  With unrest building, Moise Tshombe (Pascal Nzonzi) and the province of Katanga, which contained 70 percent of the country's resources, proclaimed secession. Lumumba replaced Janssens, making Mobutu a colonel, and went on a pacification tour with Congolese President Joseph Kasa Vubu (Maka Kotto), but it was too late.  'When you want to drown a dog, you say it has rabies,' prophesies Lumumba of his own fate.

Peck and Bonitzer do an exemplary job telling a complicated tale with a myriad of players, although they frequently succumb to cliche, particularly regarding Lumumba's private life.  Peck's script illuminates Bantu sayings like 'The hand that gives, rules' when Lumumba uses it with the American ambassador.  Peck's direction is less assured, with many scenes unfortunately playing like standard television fare.  He's served well, though, by his casting of Ebouaney in the title role.  Ebouaney is dynamic, radiating his character's fierce passion for his people and his country.  Lumumba's intelligence and ability to strategize, even as he's cornered by insurmountable odds, are given life by Ebouaney.  Peck's subject and lead actor elevate his film above its mediocre production.

"Lumumba" is a story that deserves to be told and Ebouaney's performance makes the tragedy personally felt.

B

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