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'Lumumba' tells story of tragic hero from modern African history

Friday, October 05, 2001

By Barry Paris, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

In the Eisenhower-Kennedy transition of 1959-1961 -- at the height of the Cold War -- America was not content with Russia as its "communist menace." Fresh enemies were created on a regular basis. Chief among them were Fidel Castro, whom we turned into a real communist but failed to assassinate in Cuba, and a nationalist liberator named Patrice Lumumba, whom we falsely dubbed a communist and happily helped to murder in the Congo.


RATING: R in nature for violence

STARRING: Eriq Ebouaney, Alex Descas, Maka Kotto, Pascal Nzonzi, Mariam Kaba

DIRECTOR: Raoul Peck

WEB SITE: www.zeitgeistfilm.



"Lumumba," directed by Raoul Peck, is a meticulously crafted political docudrama of the short tragic life of that African independence leader, a self-taught visionary who was appointed Congo's first prime minister at age 36 but, unwilling to bend to European colonial and American CIA demands, was deposed and murdered two months after taking office.

It begins as the Belgian Congo, one of Africa's (potentially) richest countries, is granted nominal independence after 75 years of exploitative white rule. It was, in fact, hardly a nation but rather a huge conglomerate of combative tribal kingdoms designated the "personal property" of Belgian King Leopold II at the Berlin Conference of 1885 and held together only by the iron hand of colonialism -- a place 17 times the size of Belgium itself!

In 1960, forced by the uhuru ("freedom" in Swahili) times to grant Congo's freedom, the Belgians deliberately abandoned it to chaos, out of which the magnetic Lumumba emerged. As played by Eriq Ebouaney in the film (and as in real life), Lumumba was the heart and soul behind a weak figurehead President Kasavubu (Maka Kotto). But his fatal mistakes were the alienation of Moise Tschombe (Pascal Nzonzi), strongman of mineral-rich Katanga province, and the giving over of military power to Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas), whose 1965 coup d'etat was CIA-engineered in order to protect U.S. business interests.

Ebouaney gives an excellent portrayal of a true hero, truly sabotaged by betrayals and atrocities on all sides, including his own. Mariam Kaba is touching as his pregnant wife and mother of their heart-breaking little girl.

Director Peck never sensationalizes but gets grimmer and grimmer in his realistic depiction of the violence. It is highly disturbing -- as is the fate of a helpless pawn in the deadly U.S.-USSR Cold War game, a not-ready-for-prime-time leader with an impossible combination of national and international forces arrayed against him.

"Don't tell our children the whole awful story," he urges his wife in a wrenching internal monologue -- including the awful hacking up and burning of his body, so dangerous was he considered even in death. "Just tell them I came 50 years too soon."

"Lumumba" is a difficult, upsetting film. What happened to him would foreshadow everything that has plagued his country (now Zaire) ever since. Things that plague our country, too: the despots of the Congo, the ayatollahs of Iran, the Saddams of Iraq, the Taliban of Afghanistan -- all bitter fruits of insidious seeds we sowed for "freedom."

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