The Congo’s history of royal chaos

Special to The Times

An estimated 3.9 million Congolese have died in armed conflicts and their aftermaths since 1998. The new documentary “King Leopold’s Ghost” portrays that horror as the latest link in a bloody chain that stretches back to that country’s founding.

Director Pippa Scott, who adapted the film from Adam Hochschild’s book, traces the arc of what is now the (ironically named) Democratic Republic of Congo from its origin as a private possession of Belgium’s King Leopold II in the late 1800s, through its brief flirtation with elected rule in the 1960s, to today’s homicidal chaos. It’s a truly vicious circle.

The film’s first half is a litany of inhuman acts perpetrated to subjugate a population. It’s an all-too-familiar story, but still disturbing, especially when backed by firsthand accounts and graphic images (such as villagers whose hands were punitively cut off).

More significant than the colonizers’ institutionalized savagery, and more ominous for the Congolese, was the apparent ease with which thousands of natives were recruited for the brutal suppression of their own countrymen. One historian estimates that 10 million people were killed during Leopold’s reign.


Covering about 130 years in one documentary is ambitious, especially for a novice director. But Scott has some significant advantages, such as unusually strong cinematography and the participation of Hochschild and narrator Don Cheadle and the vocal talents of Alfre Woodard and James Cromwell.

Scott lays it on thick with the pervasive use of Yoav Goren’s melodramatic score and some overripe (non-Cheadle) narration. Occasionally, there is some jarringly anachronistic footage, such as modern high-tension wires shown during a discussion of rubber harvesting in the 1890s. And one wonders what Congolese might think of the documentary’s relentlessly downbeat portrayal of their nation.

Still, for most viewers, although the grisly stories of colonial greed are old, the specific information in this film will be new. Its release is also timely, as Congo gears for the final round of voting in its first elections in 40 years.

The daughter of former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba ruefully says in the film that most Congolese are too young to even know about her father -- their one elected leader, tortured and assassinated in the 1960s. To them, the current state is the way of the world.


Although “King Leopold’s Ghost” dwells perhaps too long on the viciousness, it does offer clues on how it became a circle.


‘King Leopold’s Ghost’

MPAA rating: PG-13 for graphic and disturbing images, and descriptions of inhumanity

Distributed by Linden Productions. Writer-director-producer Pippa Scott. Based on the book by Adam Hochschild. Editor Oreet Rees. Running time 1 hour, 48 minutes.

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