Entertainment grade: B
History grade: B+
Independence leader Patrice Lumumba became the first prime minister of what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo when Belgian imperial rule ended in 1960. He was soon deposed in a military coup. Joseph Mobutu (later Mobutu Sese Seko) took power.
Patrice Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney) travels to Léopoldville, capital of what was then the Belgian Congo, to work as a beer salesman. One of his first customers is Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas), who becomes a friend and ally. This was director Raoul Peck's second Lumumba movie, after a 1992 documentary, Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, which may explain why he gallops at breakneck speed through the material. It's not often the viewer feels a historical film should actually be longer, but, to help out those who are not familiar with Congolese history and to allow its fascinating characters to develop, this one could have done with another 30 minutes at the beginning. As it is, the viewer may be left confused about a lot, including Lumumba's own background and the reason for his abrupt change of heart on being in government with Joseph Kasa-Vubu.
Congo wins independence. Kasa-Vubu becomes president, and Lumumba becomes prime minister. Here the film finds its feet. It does a wonderful job of recreating the astonishing independence ceremony on 30 June 1960. King Baudouin of Belgium gives a puffed-up, patronising speech eulogising his great-great-uncle: "Leopold II did not present himself to you as a conqueror, but as an agent of civilisation." This was the King Leopold II under whose brutal personal rule of the Congo Free State, from 1885-1908, an estimated 10m Congolese died of disease, starvation, war, ill-treatment, and summary execution. The penalty for a worker who did not meet the quota for rubber production was death. Baskets of severed hands were presented to the authorities to show this policy was being enforced – though plenty of people were mutilated while still alive. Of all the terrible things done throughout history in the name of civilisation, the Congo Free State ranks with the worst.
Bristling with fury at the king's remarks, Lumumba responds with one of the best speeches of the 20th century: a swift, sharp indictment of European tyranny, and a cry of hope for the future. The film uses Lumumba's real words, edited only for length, and shows the audience's reaction accurately. He was interrupted eight times by applause from the Congolese present, but met with stony silence from the Europeans. This newspaper's own correspondent snottily reported that the king had "behaved with great dignity" while Lumumba had given a speech "which can only be described as offensive". The Guardian had this precisely the wrong way round. Fortunately, the film gets it right.
The Belgians, who are still hanging around, don't like Lumumba's ideas about democracy. The Americans suspect he might be a communist. "You've got to take care of the kids," Lumumba tells his wife, "if anything happens to me." These glimpses of Lumumba's home life are well done, and again there could have been more. On the other hand, the film's suggestion that he had a western-style nuclear family is misleading. He had four wives.
The film alleges that both the American and the Belgian governments were trying to assassinate Lumumba. This is correct. His "removal" was authorised by the director of the CIA on 19 August 1960. The agency sent a kit containing surgical masks, syringes, rubber gloves and an undetectable biological poison to Léopoldville (now Kinshasa) for that purpose. However, Lumumba was eventually killed by the Belgians, in conjunction with his domestic enemies. The last part of the film, from Lumumba's falling out with Mobutu to his death, is gripping to watch, building to a superb last scene intercutting Lumumba's fate with Mobutu's attempt to rewrite history. Peck makes a commendable effort to get as close to the truth as possible, incorporating many details from historical investigator Ludo de Witte's The Assassination of Lumumba.
A powerful, moving film, with flashes of brilliance – but the lack of context will frustrate even those who are familiar with the story.
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