(Raoul Peck, France/Belgium/Germany/Haiti, 2000) 115 minutes


Director: Raoul Peck
Producer: Jacques Bidou
Screenplay: Raoul Peck, Pascal Bonitzer
Design: Denis Renault
Cinematography: Bernard Lutic
Editor: Jacques Comets
Music: Jaen-Claude Petit
Eriq Ebouaney (Patrice Lumumba)
Alex Descas (Joseph Mobutu)
Theophile Moussa Sowie (Maurice Mpolo)
Maka Kotto (Joseph Kasavubu)
Dieudonné Kabongo (Godefroid Munungo)
Pascal N'Zonzi (Moïse Tshomb)
Mariam Kaba (Pauline Lumumba)

Reviews and notes

2000 Cannes, Edinburgh, Toronto
2001 Mar del Plata, Acapulco, Milan, Ouagadougou
2002 Wellington

In Lumumba, filmmaker Raoul Peck has made a biographical drama as fiery as the man whose brief existence it illuminates. Patrice Lumumba, a beer salesman and civil servant with radical dreams of freedom, ascended on flights of stirring oratory to become prime minister of the Congo when that African country achieved independence from Belgium in 1960; was assassinated; and rose in memory to martyrdom. His was a rocket flare life, hot and explosive… The story begins at the close of Lumumba's days, sold out at the hands of his vulpine former friend, the emerging strongman Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas). Then director, Raoul Peck, jumps back some years to show how Lumumba (French actor Eriq Ebouaney) became the complicated, compelling, uncontainable personality he was, a thorn in the side of even those who admired him because he had so little time for diplomacy in his plans for black self rule. The filmmaker races through historic events, backed by the thrumming music of Jean Claude Petit. And Peck is right, it turns out, to trust his audience to master the chronology of history later. What matters now, what Lumumba conveys, is the urgent chaos of revolution.
– Liz Schwarzbaum, Entertainment Weekly.

The title figure of the director Raoul Peck's whip-smart Lumumba is on the side of the angels, perhaps because he's an archangel, a celestial figure with a mission. Mr. Peck's engrossing, fleet biographical feature, shares the driven efficiency of its protagonist, Patrice Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney), who barreled through his brief tenure as prime minister of Congo with a compulsion to accomplish. His initiative is a terrific motor for a movie, and Lumumba's determination to do what's right, coupled with the horrific end of his life, only adds juice to the engine.

Lumumba starts in 1960 with its hero, his eyes yellowed with exhaustion and resignation, on the way to his fate. It then jumps back a few years to the beginning of his political career. The wholesale change he helped bring about, the insurrections that forced the hand of Belgium's King Baudouin, who then ruled Congo, went beyond anything he might have dreamed and feared.

The film refuses to lay out Lumumba's life in traditional, corny terms by presenting a lengthy and unwieldy history lesson and then groveling for audience sympathy. Instead Lumumba vaults through his radicalization and the track that led this former civil servant and beer salesman to leave his angry stamp on the world. Mr. Peck loads the picture with information, but at a breathless pace. (It presumes that those not knowledgeable about the politics can keep up with the breakneck drama and familiarize themselves with the history later.)

When the newly political Lumumba meets the young Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas), it's a chilling moment: they're two tiger cubs who are about to change places. Lumumba has the bounce of a world-beater in his step; he's a man who can talk anyone into anything. And the opportunism he practices and is about to put behind him seems to infect the aspiring journalist and future military strongman Mobutu, whose hunger for glory will outstrip any good that Lumumba will do. The placid chill in Mr. Descas's well-fed cheeks shows his patience. In this way he is the opposite of Lumumba, his soon to be discarded friend, whose own restiveness will do him harm.

It's in moments like these that Mr. Peck's affinity for the material is most apparent. Lumumba's compulsiveness is pivotal during the handing over of Congo from Belgium to its freshly elected black officials. The new president, Joseph Kasavubu (Maka Kotto), is an alleviator; he gently thanks Belgium, taking his lead from paternalistic comments like, "Beware of hasty reforms, and do not replace Belgian institutions unless you are sure you can do better."

When Lumumba hears this, he is unable to contain the wolfish snarl on his face. "Our wounds are too fresh and painful for us to erase them from our memory," he brays. The embarrassed Kasavubu is left stone-faced and humiliated, but the rubble of hurt feelings and resentments is of little concern to Lumumba.

Certainly Lumumba's wounds are fresh. He incurred them when he was arrested for subversion and spent six months in jail before he was freed to attend a political summit in Brussels. Inside the prison where the activist Lumumba is beaten and tortured, we see the shine of pride fade from his eyes, replaced by the shock of fear and pain. It's a glimpse of coarse-grained reality, not a portrait of a noble hero who takes his lumps. Lumumba is a man who remembers indignity and wants to ensure that others will never have to suffer.

This conviction is rooted in Mr. Ebouaney's performance, which is a muscular assertion of willfulness. He can't keep his hands still, as if tapping out the to-do list in his head before time runs out; it's a beautiful realization of obsessive behavior. Mr. Ebouaney shows us the preening volatility of Lumumba, a resourceful perfectionist, and dares us to understand him.

It's a flat-out thrill to see a movie about African politics that doesn't condescend to audiences by placing a sympathetic white African at the center. Mr. Peck makes no plea for crocodile tears; his ambitions are as wide and encompassing as those of his subject. He's out to make a film that exposes the ugliness of cold war politics and knee-jerk imperialism. The movie's view is that Lumumba was sacrificed to stop African independence. His enemies used the hollow, well-meaning guise of stamping out the Communist threat. And Lumumba lets neither the United States nor the United Nations off the hook: it implicates both in his assassination. The irony is that Congo remains embroiled in overthrow and turmoil, the bleakest Pandora's box ever to be pried open.

Lumumba brings on new characters and revelations at a whirlwind pace; it's like the onrush of a tropical storm. It's fascinating, too, to watch a filmmaker work out his own complicated feelings about his subject, in this case a hero who was not a particularly likable human being. Mr. Peck, who wrote the screenplay with Pascal Bonitzer, understands the quicksilver mind of Lumumba. (He also directed the acclaimed 1991 documentary Lumumba - Death of a Prophet, which served as a warm-up.)

This director includes scenes that could come out of an agitprop Marx Brothers comedy, like the pre-independence exchange between Lumumba and the Belgian bureaucrat Ganshof Van der Meersch (André Debaar). When Lumumba asks if it's Belgium's intention to form a government or commission a fact-finding mission, Van der Meersch sneers, "It's a fact-finding mission to form a government."

This is a movie about chaos and regret, focusing on the unleashing of forces greater than any one person could hope to handle and the carnage, however necessary, left in their wake. Mr. Peck's gambit works, and the result is a great film and a great performance.
- Elvis Mitchell, New York Times.

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