This week’s Friday Film Pick is timed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the CIA-sponsored assassination of Patrice Lumumba, which occurred on January 17, 1961. Lumumba, who was just 36-years old when he was murdered, was the first democratically elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Historical records show that the United States and Belgium were the controlling players in his torture and murder, as well as the architects in the implementation of a new four decades-long regime that would favour the imperial ambitions of the West.
Lumumba made two fateful errors in his short time as the leader of one of the poorest countries in the world: he raised the salaries of all government officials but not the army’s and he set in motion policies that would nationalize Congo’s rich cache of resources. With the army prone to follow promises of power and fortune, Belgium—the former colonizer of the DRC—and the United States easily took political control through back channels and removed an anti-colonial democratic leader and had him replaced with the despot Joseph Mobutu, who did his part for 36-years, steering the country further into poverty as he took Western money and filled his Swiss bank account. In this way Congo’s future was set in motion: the country still exists as a supplier of cheap raw materials for the West, including the exportation of blood minerals like Coltan that is used by every cell phone company in the world.
Lumumba’s humble beginnings as a beer salesman, his meteoric rise to power as a populist activist who challenged the corrupt despotic regime in Congo as well as colonial powers, and his brutal last hours at the hands of African and Belgium torturers and murderers is magnificently portrayed in two films by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck.
Both films are this week’s Friday Film Pick because, watched together, the two compliment each other and provide two very divergent aesthetic and structural perspectives.
Lumumba: Death of a Prophet was released by Peck in 1992 and is the definitive documentary on Lumumba. Peck is not afraid to connect the skeins of complicity between corrupt African regimes and self-interested colonizing powers like Belgium and America. The documentary is crucial viewing for anyone interested in an education on the shift from 19th Century colonization to 20th Century colonization, or what would eventually become known as “globalization.” It is also a study of Peck’s own obsession with Lumumba and his murder.
In 2000 Peck took another crack at Lumumba’s story, this time in fiction form, simply called Lumumba. The result is a gorgeously pieced reconstruction of history, written, acted and shot in convincing realism. Eriq Ebouaney (pictured at top of post in his role as Lumumba) gives an incredible performance and seems to completely embody the brilliant, dedicated, and eloquent Lumumba in every scene.
Both films ensure the history of colonization and the fight against imperialism will not be forgotten, and given the current relationship between the DRC and the West, on this 50-year anniversary of one of the world’s greatest fighters for justice, we should all remind ourselves, learn and get acquainted (or re-acquainted) with this chapter in history.
The Wikipedia page on Patrice Lumumba not only provides a decent survey of his short life and even shorter stint as PM (just two short months), but provides an adequate list of artistic and interpretive works both by Lumumba and about Lumumba.