dir. Raoul Peck, 2000
115 mins. In French and Lingala with English subtitles.



“In the infinite nighttime beauty of the African savannah, two men have been given the task of cutting up three dead bodies. Then burn them. And then bury them. So ends Patrice Lumumba’s life, the man who was the first Prime Minister of the newly independent Republic of the Congo for just three months. But this is also where his story begins…”

On the occasion of Raoul Peck’s new THE YOUNG KARL MARX – to say nothing of a Black History Month celebrated under the most aggressively white-supremacist-friendly White House in at least one generation – it might be prudent to reexamine LUMUMBA, Peck’s breakthrough 2000 biopic of the Congolese pan-Africanist leader kidnapped and murdered by a CIA-backed Belgian death squad in 1961. Played by a fire-and-brimstone Eriq Ebounay, this Lumumba is a figure both complicated and heroic, whose oratory finesse sees him rising from mail clerk to beer salesman to Prime Minister by the age of 36; Lumumba narrates from beyond the grave, a radical flourish that only hints at the movie’s bigger analysis. Smeared as a symbol of Leftist impotence after failing to quell a separatist movement in his newly unified country’s rare-earth-mineral rich Katanga province to the north, Lumumba’s death sentence was carried out with the willful complicity of John F. Kennedy’s State Department (and a young Prime Minister named Joseph Kasa Vubu, played here by Maka Kotto.) His untimely death became the touchstone for U.S. interference in Africa in the name of anti-Communism, while Kasa Vubu would be overthrown by Army Commander Mobutu Sese Seko, who then lorded over Congo (then renamed as Zaire) with full American support for over three decades.

After making the 1992 documentary LUMUMBA: DEATH OF A PROPHET, Peck drew on newfound historical evidence to make LUMUMBA, which tackles the kind of backroom machinations typically left to Oliver Stone and Gillo Pontecorvo with the same red-hot, righteous anger that makes signature Peck’s later works like MOLOCH TROPICAL and I AM NOT YOUR NEGRO. Shot on location in Zimbabwe, Mozambique and Belgium, this is a sweeping biopic whose keen attention to detail and location-shot lushness initially appear to fit the mold of its Hollywood contemporaries – but to draw the comparison is to expose the milquetoast politics typical of big-budget, traditionally accessed narratives of power. Upon release, LUMUMBA was so incendiary that U.S. diplomat (and covert CIA officer) Frank Carlucci threatened to sue if his name was not removed from it, a challenge to which Peck rose by conspicuously bleeping mention of Carlucci out of an otherwise normal dialogue scene.

“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…
Elvis Mitchell, The New York Times

“Ten years ago, Peck made a documentary, LUMUMBA: DEATH OF A PROPHET, tracing the history and intrigue that he revisits in the feature film, which he describes as a “political thriller” rather than a biography, capturing Lumumba’s speedy rise and fall with deft narrative strokes and riveting, beautifully composed scenes, shot by Bernard Lutic to create not only a sense of urgency, but also a heightened sensitivity to emotional details, light and shadows work together in a kind of sublime tension.” – Cynthia Fuchs, Nitrate

“While he seems to know precisely what type of martyr Lumumba was, Peck resists a full, absorbing summation of who he may have been as a mortal… The film feels like bare- bones docu-fiction, though, resisting the attendant drama until the bitter, grisly end.”
– Wesley Morris, San Francisco Chronicle

Special thanks to Zeitgeist Films.

(poster by Tom Henry)

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