Congo: My Country
When scheduling Lumumba on the fiftieth anniversary of the murder of that now-rehabilitated Congo/Zaďre leader, Maysles Cinema had not realized that January 17 would appropriately coincide with Martin Luther King Day. Cosponsored with Friends of the Congo, the Raoul Peck biopic had been featured two years ago in the theater’s Congo in Harlem and, as noted in introductory remarks, is “not one-hundred percent accurate.”
It’s difficult to determine just how faithful this dramatization is to all the facts. On the whole, film biographies are hagiographies, because few care to invest in the lives of any but the most colossal, therefore fascinating, of history’s villains. Endemic problems of this enormous artificial-construct nation of great natural potential, and of many ex-colonies, are to a large extent the heritage of colonialism. The film understandably does not delve into that past, eighty years of brutal exploitative Belgian misrule well outlined elsewhere in White King, Red Rubber, Black Death.
There are indications of 1950-‘60s European interference and of the patronizing racism of those whites who remained after independence on June 30, 1960. Even so, and with inferences of UN and NATO complicity, the straw that gathers strength from military mutiny, stirs native division, and dooms Patrice Emery Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney) and his efforts at self-reliant unity, is CIA meddling. (A Q&A revealed that the US operative successfully sued to have his name scratched from the 2000 version released here.)
Understandable in that a little-over-two-hour movie can include only so much, there is no background furnished about the mission-schooled articulate Polar beer salesman who becomes the first elected Prime Minister and the Minister of Defense of the newborn nation. At thirty-six, he comes fully, and finally, formed, with no hint of the development of his stance or himself as a man. Less remembered than it ought to be, the story is essentially flashback with an opening sequence framed full circle at the close: three men executed at night, corpses dismembered and buried, clothing burned.
Lumumba’s voiced thoughts in the backseat on that one-way drive indicate writing though his hands are bound, speak of not telling the children though only one daughter is still living, and are addressed to wife Pauline (Mariam Kaba) who will never see him again. The body of the story in between covers his, and the nation’s, trajectory over a short period to the termination of the man’s two months in office and the subsequent accession to thirty-six years of dictatorship of his once-friend, later MNC subordinate and in the end nemesis, Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas).
Born in Haiti but raised in Congo, cowriter Peck knows his field and does a workmanlike job presenting an internecine struggle exacerbated by outside interests who fan social disorder and encourage Moise Tshombe’s (Pascal N’Zonzi) Conacat party Katanga succession, double-dealing while waiting to pick up the pieces in de facto control of the strategic mineral riches.
The fly in their ointment is Lumumba, presented as incorruptible, idealistic, and unbending on national, eventually continental, cohesion. It is his turning as last resort to Russia for aid -- Cuba: An African Odyssey, documents Fidel and Che’s failed expedition -- that spells his overthrow, even if he embraced neither Socialism nor Communism.
His opening voiceover finished, the point of view, however, remains his, the camera accompanying him everywhere. Although he stoically mourns the hepatitis death in Switzerland of his infant daughter and though, fatally, he returns for Pauline and their other child, the straightforward narrative does not humanize him. With no idea given where he comes from, his mind made up with no sign of internal debate, the character is flat. The wife a stick figure and faithful assistants in respectful awe, he lacks a confidant with whom to uncover doubts or development; acting throughout is surface, so the life remains curiously uninvolving (which is not necessarily the same as untrue or too good to be true).
Drawn from life or not, film people need some flaw, some depth, a facial betrayal of emotional struggle. If not, they are the stuff of action adventure, rooted for but at once forgotten.
(Released by Zeitgeist Films; not rated by MPAA.)