Patrice Emery Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney) is a kind of African Malcolm X who takes a no-nonsense approach to the subject of Congo independence. Refined and dynamic, he's nobody's fool when it comes to leadership. A shrewd, hot-tempered, straight-for-the-jugular politician, Lumumba attempted to lead his country to independence in 1960 as the nation's first prime minister, a course that proved personally suicidal for Lumumba but made him a martyr and political symbol for generations of Africans to come.
Lumumba begins his political education in Leopoldville when he travels to the nation's capital to work as a salesman in a beer factory and, ironically, begins his advocacy and speech-making while trying to sell his brethren on a Belgian brew called Polar Beer.
Lumumba derives its thrills from the psychological grist of politics: the negotiations, the power struggles and vanities that make or break nations. After decades of colonialist rule by Belgium, the nation is given its independence in June 1960. Lumumba, a 36-year-old "self-taught nationalist" and leader of the Congolese National Movement, steps up as a politician willing to lead the country to freedom. That opportunity begins to feel more like a nightmare, though, as various tribal and international groups vie for power in the new nation.
What sets Lumumba apart is a cynicism established at the very onset, in telling its tale in flashback from the site of a gruesome murder, a la the corpse-vantage of Sunset Boulevard. Lumumba narrates the film as he is led to his death in the African bush, and the story unfolds in retrospect, as he struggles to lead the Congo's people with a message of Pan-African unity. Adding a measure of horror are the historical photographs that accompany the film's title sequence. Images of African men in shackles and little African boys resting at the feet of their white Belgian masters speak to the nation's ugly past in the slave trade.
Several of the photos are of Africans engaged in enslaving other Africans, and the film suggests that the divisive self- interest of feuding African territories and tribes contributed to Lumumba's eventual assassination nine months after he took office. His death was carried out by the Belgians, but it was the Congo Army, politicians and other black Africans who helped deliver him to the murderers.
Almost as soon as Lumumba takes office, the country's sense of order begins to fray: An army outraged at its command under white officers begins to attack and murder white Belgians, and Lumumba's appeal to the Soviets for help arouses the ire of the Americans.
We're used to the image of politicians as slick glad-handers or saints, but Lumumba brings a human dimension to its subject that marks director Raoul Peck as a filmmaker of enormous restraint and shows the remnants of his documentarian vision in fiction filmmaking. The Lumumba of Raoul Peck's film comes across as a flawed, at times even unpleasant, man who is often shockingly blunt in dealing with his adversaries. He's unwilling to negotiate with the Congo's former occupiers and cognizant of how even a military handout from the Belgians, when the newly independent state borders on anarchy, would doom the nation's autonomous future.
Lumumba often can meander into a labyrinthine history lesson, difficult to follow for those unschooled in the region's political history, as in its indictment of the Americans, Belgians and U.N. forces who conspired against Lumumba to foil the Russians or to protect economic interests in the Congo. For better or worse, Peck's film is more concerned with documenting the details of Lumumba's fall than crafting an engaging storyline.
There is a degree of preachiness that comes from stories like Lumumba in which the truth of an ugly political struggle is exposed in accurate, albeit tangled and confusing exegesis. But considering how incomplete our understanding of Third World politics can be, the film's didacticism may be entirely justified.
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