FILM; In a Mirror on Africa, a Hero Unfairly Tarnished
June 24, 2001
By ALAN RIDING
IT was in the United States that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X fought their battles for civil rights; yet thanks to the power of American media and popular culture, they also became symbols of liberation for people of African descent around the world. In contrast, the heroes of Africa's own decolonization movement have largely been forgotten, their early idealism long since buried in a bitter legacy of dictatorship, violence and poverty.
One such hero was Patrice Lumumba, a strong nationalist who became the Congo's first elected prime minister after it won its independence from Belgium in June 1960. Within months, however, vilified in the West as a Communist, he was murdered with the collusion of the United States and Belgium. For some years, Moscow kept alive his memory as an icon of anti-imperialism. Today, Lumumba survives principally as a street name in many third world cities.
In that sense, Raoul Peck's new movie, ''Lumumba,'' which opens at the Film Forum in Manhattan on Wednesday (and nationally throughout the summer), is almost inevitably an exercise in historical reclamation. Yet it is neither a straightforward biopic nor a period film. By portraying the tragic events that engulfed the Congo four decades ago through the eyes of one of the vanquished, the film also holds up a mirror to Africa today. Then as now, it seems, the Congo is too rich in resources to be left to the Congolese.
''People say, 'Look at the Africans killing each other,' without considering the responsibility of the West,'' said Mr. Peck, 47, a Haitian-born director who has had ample experience of despotism and misery in his own country. ''For me, the world is not divided: our histories are interwoven. The end of the cold war makes things clearer because the problems are still there and we can see they are not the result of the East-West conflict.''
That said, ''Lumumba'' is not a political tract. Rather, Mr. Peck said, his aim was to make a political thriller that throws light on how power works behind the scenes, whether in the Congo, in Haiti (where he served as culture minister in the mid-1990's) or anywhere else. For that, he said, it was important to show Lumumba more as a human being than as a political symbol. ''He became a martyr because in a sense that was the only course left to him so as not to disappear from history,'' Mr. Peck said over coffee in a restaurant near his home in eastern Paris.
After seeing the film at last year's Toronto Film Festival, Elvis Mitchell wrote in The New York Times that it contains ''a breathtaking amount of information, rolling through history swiftly and boldly yet conveying an epic investment in characterization as Lumumba's power and comrades inexorably fade, victims of the conflict in the Congo.'' Eriq Ebouaney's ''contained fury'' in the role of Lumumba, Mr. Mitchell said, ''ranks with the sinewy complication of Denzel Washington's workout as Malcolm X.''
Mr. Peck picks up the tall charismatic Lumumba as a sales representative for a Belgian beer company who was also emerging as a popular leader of the Congolese National Movement. Spotted as a dangerous radical, the Belgian authorities threw him into jail but were then forced to allow him to participate in negotiations in Brussels preparing the Congo's independence. Lumumba's party won the country's first free elections and, at 35, he became prime minister on Independence Day, June 30, 1960.
But within days, the Congo slid into chaos. Army mutinies were followed by a Belgian military intervention, the secession of the minerals-rich province of Katanga and the arrival of United Nations troops. Suddenly, the Congo was at the center of world attention. And while Lumumba tried to prevent the country's breakup, his enemies multiplied. In September 1960, with the United States already planning Lumumba's murder through poisoning, President Joseph Kasavubu dismissed him, and the army commander, Joseph Mobutu, moved to arrest him.
Lumumba managed to escape from Léopoldville (today Kinshasa) and tried to join his followers in the provinces, but he was arrested on Dec. 2. By then, both the United States and Belgium had decided that even out of power, Lumumba posed an unacceptable threat. On Jan. 17, he was delivered to his enemies in Katanga, where he and two aides were murdered that evening in the presence of Belgian army officers. The following day, two Belgian soldiers dug up the three bodies, cut them in pieces and burned all traces of them.
THE movie ends with Lumumba's incineration, but the ''history of glory and dignity'' that he prophesied did not ensue. Instead, the Congo was to face more than 30 years of dictatorship under Mobutu Sese Seko, followed by a new civil war won in 1997 by Laurent Kabila, who was in turn murdered this January and succeeded by his son, Joseph. Indeed, ''Lumumba'' was filmed in Zimbabwe and Mozambique because in 1999 the Congo was again engulfed in war.
It is a country that Mr. Peck knows well because his agronomist father, forced to flee the Duvalier dictatorship in Haiti, found work with the United Nations in the Congo in the early 1960's. Mr. Peck himself studied in France and Germany, but he returned frequently to the Congo on vacation. It was the Congo, however, of Mobuto, a land -- renamed Zaire for a time -- where Lumumba was officially a fallen hero but in practice never mentioned.
After Mr. Peck made his first film, ''Haitian Corner,'' in 1988, he was approached by a Swiss producer with a screenplay about a Swiss doctor's descent into Conradian hell in Africa. Mr. Peck was not interested, but instead it reawakened his interest in the Congo. Suddenly, the figure of Lumumba emerged and, in 1991, Mr. Peck made a well-received documentary, ''Lumumba: Death of a Prophet.'' In 1993, he explored Haiti's Duvalier dictatorship in ''The Man on the Shore,'' but the idea of a full-length feature film about Lumumba stayed with him. ''It took me a long time to understand the tragic side to his personality,'' Mr. Peck said. ''He was an idealist because he had the option of being an opportunist like so many around him and he chose not to be.
''But he was difficult to pin down,'' Mr. Peck said. ''He would switch from charm to anger in a second; he did foolish things. Psychologically, it took time for me to like him. I'd call the film a modest rehabilitation.''
For Mr. Ebouaney, 33, a French-born actor of Cameroon extraction, playing the role of Lumumba involved a different kind of discovery.
''I didn't know much about him,'' he said. ''I did most of my schooling in France, and there'd be three lines about him in our history books. I knew more about Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, partly because of the 'Malcolm X' film, but also because we learn more about American heroes than about the history of decolonization. I read what I could about Lumumba, but Raoul knew exactly what he wanted. My job was to find the human being in Lumumba.''
Once the film was completed, a high point for both Mr. Peck and Mr. Ebouaney was to attend openings of the movie in several West African countries.
''People had heard of Lumumba without knowing much about his life or his death,'' Mr. Ebouaney said. ''I felt a very warm response, as if we were opening a door to what Africa might have been if Africans themselves had decided to take charge of their destiny. What I find sad is that things haven't changed. We still have a form of neocolonialism. The actors change but the situations remain the same.''
Mr. Peck, who earlier this month received the Diamond Lifetime Achievement Award at the Human Rights Watch International Film Festival at Lincoln Center, said he was specially struck by the way many Africans interpret the film through their own history. ''In Algeria, there was a debate after the screening,'' he said. ''After a while, it was a heated debate about Algeria between Algerians. That's the problem. Young Haitians or Congolese have never seen a mainstream film that shows their history, that shows personalities with whom they can identify. In making this film, that was one of my essential objectives.''
Indeed, while ''Lumumba'' has not yet been released in the Congo, Mr. Peck seemed delighted that a pirated tape has already been shown four times on local television.
''We'll have an official opening one of these days,'' he added, ''but the important thing is that it's being debated.''