"Lumumba" is potent stuff. Complex, powerful, intensely dramatic, its compelling depiction of an African political tragedy echoes Woodrow Wilson's apocryphal remark about the couldn't-be-more-different "Birth of a Nation": "It is like writing history with lightning." The tragedy is not only that of Patrice Lumumba, a man whose career had the trajectory of a skyrocket. He was not yet 35 when he became the first prime minister of the newly independent Congo in June 1960 and one of the continent's most promising and charismatic leaders. Two months later he was out of power; six months after that, he was dead. It was a calamity for his country and for Africa's place in the world.
These events happened 40 years ago, but "Lumumba's" realistic style has infused them with a driving urgency and immediacy. Though born in Haiti, director Raoul Peck (who wrote the script with Pascal Bonitzer) knows the Congo well: He spent part of his childhood there and made a prize-winning documentary on Lumumba.
In Eriq Ebouaney, Peck has found the ideal actor to play the French-speaking Congolese leader. Ebouaney's Lumumba is an intensely magnetic individual, a mesmerizing speaker with an exceptionally forceful personality. It's a riveting performance, one that makes everything that happens persuasive and believable. Given that it was done with the cooperation of Lumumba's family, it's not surprising that the film's portrait is respectful and admiring. But "Lumumba" doesn't hesitate to show the man's confrontational self-confidence, his intransigent insistence on saying the truths he felt needed to be said no matter what the consequences. Some of the film's most dramatic moments turn out to have happened just as depicted on screen.
It is another of "Lumumba's" virtues that it acknowledges that the Congo situation was too complex for either cardboard saints or convenient villains. What happened can't be entirely chalked up to one individual's characteristics, to the maneuvers of Congolese adversaries or the regrettable machinations of Cold War thinking by the U.S. The awful legacy of colonialism, it turned out, was too overwhelming to be immediately overturned by the stroke of a pen.
Some of that baggage is hinted at in the vintage photographs displayed under the opening credits, snapshots that only touch the surface of the horrific atrocities that took place during the decades when the Congo was not a colony but the personal property of Belgium's King Leopold II.
"Lumumba" begins at the end of the man's history, with the deposed prime minister, handcuffed in the back of a car, being driven to his execution site. The rest of the film plays as a kind of extended flashback, a beyond-the-grave letter to Lumumba's wife detailing his life, his death and the pains his enemies took to dispose of his corpse. "Even dead I was a threat to them," the victim says. "Lumumba" unaccountably (and initially confusingly) skips the start of the future prime minister's drive for his country's independence and his founding of the Congolese National Movement party. Rather it picks up his life as a convincing salesman for Polar Beer in the capital city of Leopoldville.
Lumumba's simultaneous political activity puts him in contact with quiet journalist Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas), nobody's pick to be the country's future dictator. Lumumba is imprisoned for his political activity but is freed to go to Brussels and participate in a Belgian round table on the Congo's future.
Aside from his drive and charisma, what set Lumumba apart from his main rivals--veteran politico Joseph Kasavubu and Moise Tshombe, mineral-rich Katanga province's strongman--was his vision of a unified Congo. While others wanted a weak federation, Lumumba was passionate about a single Congo he hoped would rise above tribalism's petty rivalries.
Agreeing in a political compromise to be prime minister to Kasavubu's president, Lumumba was faced with problems as soon as independence was declared, problems that were inevitable because of the Belgians' refusal to train native Congolese for management positions. Unhappy with its white officers, the army began rioting, Katanga province seceded and the Belgians began looking for the first opportunity to intervene with troops and run the country again. This, above all else, Lumumba could not abide, and his courage and iron convictions helped pave the way for his downfall.
Overmatched by history, with a vision for his country that the international community did not share, Lumumba was more doomed than he knew. "I came 50 years too soon," the film has him say, adding: "History will have its say someday." This authoritative, always involving film is a major step in that process.
Unrated. Times guidelines: scenes of a body being dismembered and burned.
Eriq Ebouaney: Patrice Lumumba
Alex Descas: Joseph Mobutu
Theophile Moussa Sowie: Maurice Mpolo
Maka Kotto: Joseph Kasavubu
Dieudonne Kabongo: Godefroit Munungo
Pascal Nzonzi: Moise Tshombe
Released by Zeitgeist Films. Director Raoul Peck. Executive producer Jacques Bidou. Screenplay Raoul Peck, Pascal Bonitzer. Cinematographer Bernard Lutic. Editor Jacques Comets. Costumes Charlotte David. Music Jean-Claude Petit. Art director Andre Fonsny. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes.