Dreams of Democracy

The one and only: Eriq Ebouaney in 'Lumumba'
Zeitgeist Films

Political martyrs face two problems in the fictional afterlife of movies. First, they hit theaters while entombed in the nobility that one normally associates with funeral services. (Note to future producers: Even MLK knew a good pillow fight when he saw one.) Second, if the martyrs aren't white, their stories are too often saddled with "sympathetic" characters who are.

As it happens, early drafts of Raoul Peck's taut political thriller Lumumba reportedly contained just this sort of Kevin Kline-style token--wisely scrapped in later revisions. But the toughest problem was still to be faced. How do you give vivid screen life to a symbolically loaded figure such as Patrice Lumumba, who in 1960 presided over the brief, two-and-a-half-month life span of democracy in the Congo?

This historic window at least provided a view: Lumumba was indeed the first, and only, freely elected prime minister of his country (renamed Zaire for a while), rising to prominence during a hopeful postwar era of urbanization and nationalism. (One of the incidental joys of Lumumba is the ample live rumba music, which Peck packs into just about any scene he can.) When nominal independence crumbled into civic chaos in 1960--followed by a swift reassertion of Belgian force--the window slammed shut on the high times forever. Depicted in the movie's gruesome opening scenes, Lumumba's physical disposal from this earth inaugurated Joseph Mobutu's 32-year-long kleptocratic dictatorship--with a civil war and bloody partition to follow.

Haitian director Peck hardly lays the blame at any one door. He seems to shape his dizzyingly complex narrative in deference to the dramatic instincts of Cameroon actor Eriq Ebouaney, whose Lumumba is too wired and zealous to be a walking memorial plaque, much less a saint. Difficult, temperamental, yet uncompromisingly ethical, he constantly tests the patience and loyalty of his allies, who resent his confrontational virtuousness nearly as much as his enemies do.

The film introduces us to the living Lumumba in 1958, when he is a bespectacled young ex-librarian hawking beer for a living on the streets of Leopoldville (later Kinshasa). The self-styled nationalist is high on his own sales pitch, and you can imagine how the guy might recruit on the sly for the National Congolese Movement. With a prim bearing and a booming voice, Lumumba is a charmingly self-delighted orator. He quickly befriends the quiet Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas), the man who will one day oust him from office. With a bland face and blank eyes, Descas allows his scholar-turned-strongman to register as a sort of eerie, polite absence from whatever room he is in.

After elections sweep Lumumba into office in a matter of minutes onscreen, the new leader shocks the West by denouncing colonialism over the radio, as black cooks and other laborers gather around transistors: "Our wounds are too fresh and too painful," he thunders, "for us to drive them from our memory." He declares that in this era, the country belongs to its children. But soon it becomes clear that the Belgian elite, military officers included, is not about to integrate, and bands of black soldiers take to the streets, tearing white citizens from their cars and raping women. Lumumba responds by calling for peace and firing insubordinate Belgian brass. The wealthy province of Katanga then secedes (with at least tacit U.N. and U.S. approval), and the prime minister responds by asking for, and receiving, military assistance from the Soviets--inevitably feeding the Western line that he is a Communist in pan-Africanist drag.

With so much historical information to convey, there are inevitably lapses in dramatic logic. In one scene, a half-crazed mob of soldiers bursts in on a cabinet meeting to present Lumumba with a list of demands. If the prime minister doesn't visit Camp Leopold first thing in the morning, they say, their white hostages are as good as dead. Morning comes, though, then night, and we're never shown what happened at Camp Leopold. At least Peck deftly tracks Mobutu's understated moves to take power from an old friend. And he also pauses, unlike his protagonist, to quietly observe the beauty of the African countryside--which is here represented by Mozambique and Zimbabwe. (The Congo was still at war in 1999.)

Still, the present day intrudes on the martyr's tale: On November 16, the Belgian government announced that it holds "moral responsibility" for the slaying of Patrice Lumumba. No one has yet suggested that Americans follow suit, though a Belgian official told Lumumba biographer Ludo de Witte that he kept CIA station chief Lawrence Devlin well in the loop of the plot against Lumumba (a charge that Devlin denies). The Elisabethville (now Lubumbashi) base sent a cable to headquarters two days after Lumumba's 1961 death that read, "Thanks for Patrice. If we had known he was coming, we would have baked a snake." Perhaps one of these characters might someday provide the token white for an African spy movie, though filming in the Congo is still inadvisable.

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