George Santayana famously wrote that “those who do not learn from
the past are condemned to repeat it.” As if to prove this dictum, one can
look almost anywhere in the world at events that are unfolding. One could,
for instance, focus on Africa, where internecine conflict continues to this day
in various nations. The fractious political history of that continent is a long
and complex one, seemingly beyond the scope of a mere entertainment. But
in Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s magisterial biography of Patrice Lumumba,
the first Prime Minister of the Congo following its independence from Belgium,
one can learn much without feeling as if one has been subjected to a history
lesson. Peck takes a very complex series of events and distills them into a
fascinating and engrossing tale that has the added cache of being true. In
1960, not long after achieving his position of power, Lumumba was brutally
murdered and his death (and those of two colleagues) were shrouded in the
mists of history until Peck ferreted out the truth.
By beginning with Lumumba’s death and using the letters he wrote
to his wife and family as voice-over narration from beyond the grave, the
film takes on the tone of a classic mystery. For those unfamiliar with
Lumumba, the movie arguably removes some of the suspense over the
character’s fate, but that is hardly the point. Peck clearly isn’t making a
hagiographic portrait nor is he offering a condemnation or all-out criticism
of the man. Indeed, he strikes a middle ground that elevates the film into
a rarefied realm of excellence. Essentially by cutting to the chase and
concentrating on Lumumba’s political career, Peck builds on his own
documentary LUMUMBA - DEATH OF A PROPHET. Some may find the
intricacies of the political machinations difficult to follow, but they are
not as important as the story of a man and his struggle to achieve his
goal of a unified country. Although he employs a documentary-like tone,
Peck isn’t afraid to use dramatic license to complete the picture of the
identity of the title character.
Instead of beginning with Lumumba’s birth and early childhood, the
body of the film starts with the rise of the man (played with skill and
conviction by Eriq Ebouaney) within the Congolese National Movement.
We follow the man through his incarceration to his being invited to attend
the negotiations for independence in Brussels. There, he makes some
powerful enemies and with the approach of independence, he begins
to become enmeshed in an intricate web of conflicts, having to juggle
the competing or complimentary interests of Belgium, the United States
and the Soviet Union.
The genius of this film is that is captures the political experience
in a way rarely seen on a movie screen. As the dramatic events unfold,
Peck employs subtle visual cues and grows in power as it reaches its climax.
Anchored by Ebouaney’s brilliant performance as the charismatic leader,
LUMUMBA overcomes some minor shortcomings and becomes an important
and gripping feature. One can only hope that an audience who views it
will learn and therefore not be condemned to repeat the past.
|© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.