Monday, March 26, 2007


2000, France/Belgium/Germany/Haiti, directed by Raoul Peck

Although it appears to be a conventional biopic on the surface, Raoul Peck's Lumumba is ultimately no more an objective portrait than his previous documentary on same subject, and functions, like that earlier work, as an examination of Peck's own relationship with his subject. The film opens with a re-creation of the possible circumstances surrounding Lumumba's death (circumstances not too far from the reality, if subsequent admissions from the Belgian government are reliable), and then moves backward, joining Lumumba as he arrives in Congo's capital city, still called, in the pre-independence period, Léopoldville. His political development is over almost in a flash: he goes from selling beer to having a key role in the independence negotiations in a manner that elides almost all of the details of his rise to prominence (which in some ways calls into question the degree to which Lumumba enjoyed popular support).

The film's primary interest is in Lumumba's brief period in power, his few months as prime minister in 1960, during which the idealism of the pre-independence period collides with the (sometimes brutal) realities of governing the vast area of the Congo, riven by regional rivalries as well as by outside influences (the film alludes to the involvement of Belgium, the Soviet Union and the US - while the UN is invoked in terms that portray it as both malign and welcome). There's a great poignancy to Peck's nuanced portrait of Lumumba, as if the director himself is also confronted with the reality that even a hero of the independence period has shades of grey; he doesn't shy away from Lumumba's occasional intransigence, nor from the fact that he, along with other leaders, was ill-prepared for the scale of the task ahead. Peck has no interest in hagiography, and the Lumumba that emerges from his film is a complex man, magnetic but also overburdened, toppled by circumstances in which almost no-one, save for Lumumba himself, remained loyal to the people of Congo.

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