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With: Eriq Ebouaney, Alex Descas, Theophile Moussa Sowie, Maka Kotto
Written by: Raoul Peck, Pascal Bonitzer
Directed by: Raoul Peck
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: French, Lingala, English, with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 05/14/2000

Lumumba (2000)

3 Stars (out of 4)

King of the Congo

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Sometimes the magic of movies sweeps you up in an emotional frenzy, tickling your synapses, bringing joy or fear or sorrow, and sometimes they offer a good ol' fashioned learning experience. I sat down to Lumumba not knowing a thing about African politics circa the early 60s, and here was this movie just dying to explain it all to me.

To put it briefly, Patrice Lumumba (played here by Eriq Ebouaney) was a postal clerk and a beer salesman who represented the Congo (controlled by Belgium) in the Pan-African Conference in Accra. Following that, the Congo declared independence from Belgium and Lumumba became the country's first Prime Minister. The position lasted a little over two months before Belgian troops intervened and Lumumba was dismissed and eventually executed.

I gleaned this information from the film itself, but more than that was hard to come by. Directed by Raoul Peck and written by Peck and the brilliant French screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer (Joan the Maid and Ma saison preferee), the film struggles to compress the important events in the life of an important man into just two hours.

Biopics have always battled with this problem. Scene after scene, Lumumba is made up of frenzied meetings, hazy late night paperwork sessions, passionate speeches, and hastily made decisions. Each scene moves faster than a screwball comedy and is cut together as tightly as a knit sweater. But in all the furor, we never really get an idea who Lumumba is beyond Eriq Ebouaney's insightful portrayal. The legendary critic Stanley Kauffmann correctly likened the film to quickly skimming through the pages of a complicated book. Only the incredible beginning and ending wraparound sequences give us a breath of life, and ironically, these sequences chronicle Lumumba's death.

It's helpful, and even necessary, to make such a fast-moving portrait in order to get in all the pertinent details, but it's equally necessary to show us a couple of scenes of Lumumba simply reflecting, doing nothing, and being. Lumumba never seems to be affected personally by everything that happens to him. He's definitely affected politically -- on the surface -- and his actions show this, but we never see him thinking about what would have happened if he'd remained a beer salesman, or if he and his wife had simply moved away and lived a quiet life. Everyone wonders about these kinds of things, and that's what might connect us to someone like Lumumba. (Because, frankly, hardly any of us have ever been in charge of a newly liberated African country.)

Yet, this is a small complaint, as the Lumumba that appears on the screen is still a powerful portrait and provides more than enough material for someone like me who knew nothing. Peck's direction travels the documentary route, acting as a fly on the wall for these heated political days. Not a single moment rings false. So I now know at least a little bit about the legend, the hero, the leader Lumumba, but I still know very little about the man.

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