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|First published in the International Herald Tribune, June 27, 2001
|Forgotten Hero: Lumumba on Film
|Alan Riding New York Times Service
Paris It was in the United States that the
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X fought their battles for civil rights; yet
thanks to the power of American media and popular culture, they also became symbols of
liberation for people of African descent around the world. In contrast, the heroes of
Africa's own decolonization movement have been largely forgotten, their early idealism
long since buried in bitter legacy of dictatorship, violence and poverty.
One such hero was Patrice Lumumba, a nationalist who became the Congo's first elected
prime minister after it won its independence from Belgium in 1960. But within months,
vilified in the West as a communist, he was slain with the collusion of the United States
and Belgium. For some years, Moscow kept alive his memory as an icon of anti-imperialism.
Today, Lumumba survives principally as a street name in many Third World cities.
In that sense, Raoul Peck's movie, "Lumumba," which opens in the United States
at the Film Forum in Manhattan on June 27, is almost inevitably an excuse in historical
reclamation. Yet it is neither a straightforward biopic nor a period film. By portraying
the tragic events that engulfed the Congo four decades ago through the eye of one of the
vanquished, the film also holds up a mirror to Africa today. Then as now, it seems, the
Congo is too rich in resources to be left to the Congolese.
"People say, 'Look at the Africans killing each other," without considering the
responsibility of the West," said Peck 47, a Haitian-Born director who has had ample
experience of despotism and misery in his own country. "For me, the world is not
divided: Our histories are interwoven. The end of the Cold War makes things clearer
because the problems are still there and we can see they are not the result of the
That said, "Lumumba" is not a political tract. Rather, Peck said, his aim was to
make a political thriller that throws light on how power works behinds the scenes, whether
in the Congo, in Haiti (where he served as culture minister in the mid-1990s) or anywhere
else. For that, he said it was important to show Lumumba more as a human being than as a
political symbol. "He became a martyr because in a sense that was the only course
left to him so as not to disappear from history," Peck said over coffee in a
restaurant near his home in eastern Paris.
Peck picks up the tall charismatic Lumumba as a sales representative for a Belgian beer
company who was also emerging as a popular leader of the Congolese National Movement.
Spotted as a dangerous radical, the Belgian authorities threw him into jail but were then
forced to allowed him to participate in negotiations in Brussels preparing for
independence. Lumumba's party won the country's first free elections and, at 35, he became
prime minister on independence day, June 30 1960.
But within days, the Congo slid into chaos. Army mutinies were followed by a Belgian
military intervention, the secession of the mineral-rich province of Katanga and the
arrival of United Nations troops. Suddenly, the Congo was at the center of world
attention. And Lumumba tried to prevent the country's breakup, his enemies multiplied. In
September 1960, with the United States already planning Lumumba's death by poisoning,
President Joseph Kasavubu dismissed him, and the army commander Joseph Mobutu, moved to
Lumumba managed to escape from Leopoldville (Kinshasa today) and tried to joint his
followers in the provinces, but he was arrested on Dec. 2. By then, both the United States
and Belgium had decided that even out of power, Lumumba posed an unacceptable threat. On
Jan. 17, 1961, he was delivered to his enemies in Katanga, where he and two aides were
killed that evening in the presence of Belgian Army officers. The following day, two
Belgian soldiers dug up the three bodies, cut them in pieces and burned all traces of
The movie ends with Lumumba's incineration, but the "history of glory and
dignity" that he prophesied did not ensue. Instead, the Congo was to face far more
than 30 years of dictatorship under Mobutu Sesse Seko, followed by a new civil war won in
1997 by Laurent Kabila, who was in turn killed this January and succeeded by his son,
Joseph. Indeed, "Lumumba was filmed in Zimbawe and Mozambique because in 1999 the
Congo was again engulfed in war.
It is a country that Peck knows well because his agronomist father, forced to flee the
Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, found work with the United Nations in the Congo in the
early 1960s. Peck studied in France and Germany, but he returned frequently to the Congo
on vacation. But it was the Congo of Mobutu, a land - renamed Zaire for a time - where
Lumumba was officially a fallen hero but in practice never mentioned.
After Peck made his first film, "Haitian Corner," in the 1988, he was approached
by a Swiss producer with a screenplay about a Swiss doctor's descent into Conradian hell
in Africa. Peck was not interested, but it reawakened his interest in the Congo. Suddenly,
the figure of Lumumba emerged and, in 1991, Peck made a well-received documentary,
Lumumba: Death of a Prophet." In 1993, he explored Haiti's Duvalier
dictatorship in "The Man on the Shore," but the idea of a full-length feature
film about Lumumba stayed with him.
"He was an idealist because he had the option of being an opportunist like so many
around him and chose not to be," Peck said. "But he was difficult to pin down.
He would switch from charm to anger in a second; he did foolish things. Psychologically,
it took time for me to like him. I'd call the film a modest rehabilitation."
Once the film was completed, a high point for Peck was to attend openings of the movie in
several West African countries. Peck, who this month received the Diamond Lifetime
Achievement Award at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Lincoln Center,
said he was specially struck by the way many Africans interpret the film through their own
history, "In Algeria, there was a debate after the screening," he said.
"After a while, it was a heated debate about Algeria between Algerians. That's the
problem. Young Haitians or Congolese have never seen a mainstream film that shows their
history, that shows personalities with whom they can identify. In making this film, that
was one of my essential objectives."
While "Lumumba has not yet been released in the Congo, Peck seemed delighted that a
pirated tape has already been shown four times on local television. We'll have an official
opening one of these days," he added, "but the important thing is that it's
*Editor's notes: We are proud of Roaul Peck for making such a great film. However, without
the contributions of others this great film, which we urge citizens and foreign residents
of the U.S., including those of other countries, to go to see in a movie theater near or
even miles away from where they reside, would not have been be possible.
LUMUMBA Zeitgeist Films JBA Prods. Director: Raoul Peck; screenwriters: Raoul Peck, Pascal
Bonitzer; executive producer: Jacques Bidou; director of photography: Bernard Lutic;
production designer: Denis Renault; editor: Jacques Comets; Costume designer: Charlotte
David; Music: Jean-Claude Petit; casting: Sykvie Brochere; Patrice Lumumba: Eriq Ebouaney;
Joseph Mobutu: Alex Descas; Maurice Mpolo: Theophile Moussa Sowie; Joseph Kasavubu:
Makatto; Godefroid Munungo: Dieudonne Kabongo; Moise Tshombe: Pascal Nzonzi; Pauline
Lumumba: Mariam Kaba.
Running time: 115 minutes
No MPAA rating
scholarly journal of democracy and human rights