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8494: NYTimes.com Article: 'Lumumba': An African Leader's Brief Blaze of Glory (fwd)

From: kdavis@marygrove.edu

'Lumumba': An African Leader's Brief Blaze of Glory



he title figure of the director Raoul Peck's whip-smart "Lumumba"
is on the side of the angels, perhaps because he's an archangel, a
celestial figure with a mission. Mr. Peck's engrossing, fleet
biographical feature, opening today at Film Forum, shares the
driven efficiency of its protagonist, Patrice Lumumba (Eriq
Ebouaney), who barreled through his brief tenure as prime minister
of Congo with a compulsion to accomplish. His initiative is a
terrific motor for a movie, and Lumumba's determination to do
what's right, coupled with the horrific end of his life, only adds
juice to the engine.

 "Lumumba" starts in 1960 with its hero, his eyes yellowed with
exhaustion and resignation, on the way to his fate. It then jumps
back a few years to the beginning of his political career. The
wholesale change he helped bring about, the insurrections that
forced the hand of Belgium's King Leopold II, who then ruled Congo,
went beyond anything he might have dreamed and feared.

 The film refuses to lay out Lumumba's life in traditional, corny
terms by presenting a lengthy and unwieldy history lesson and then
groveling for audience sympathy. Instead "Lumumba" vaults through
his radicalization and the track that led this former civil servant
and beer salesman to leave his angry stamp on the world. Mr. Peck
loads the picture with information, but at a breathless pace. (It
presumes that those not knowledgeable about the politics can keep
up with the breakneck drama and familiarize themselves with the
history later.)

 When the newly political Lumumba meets the young Joseph Mobutu
(Alex Descas), it's a chilling moment: they're two tiger cubs who
are about to change places. Lumumba has the bounce of a
world-beater in his step; he's a man who can talk anyone into
anything. And the opportunism he practices and is about to put
behind him seems to infect the aspiring journalist and future
military strongman Mobutu, whose hunger for glory will outstrip any
good that Lumumba will do. The placid chill in Mr. Descas's
well-fed cheeks shows his patience. In this way he is the opposite
of Lumumba, his soon to be discarded friend, whose own restiveness
will do him harm.

 It's in moments like these that Mr. Peck's affinity for the
material is most apparent. Lumumba's compulsiveness is pivotal
during the handing over of Congo from Belgium to its freshly
elected black officials. The new president, Joseph Kasa Vubu (Maka
Kotto), is an alleviator; he gently thanks Belgium, taking his lead
from paternalistic comments like, "Beware of hasty reforms, and do
not replace Belgian institutions unless you are sure you can do

 When Lumumba hears this, he is unable to contain the wolfish snarl
on his face. "Our wounds are too fresh and painful for us to erase
them from our memory," he brays. The embarrassed Kasa Vubu is left
stone-faced and humiliated, but the rubble of hurt feelings and
resentments is of little concern to Lumumba.

 Certainly Lumumba's wounds are fresh. He incurred them when he was
arrested for subversion and spent six months in jail before he was
freed to attend a political summit in Brussels. Inside the prison
where the activist Lumumba is beaten and tortured, we see the shine
of pride fade from his eyes, replaced by the shock of fear and
pain. It's a glimpse of coarse-grained reality, not a portrait of a
noble hero who takes his lumps. Lumumba is a man who remembers
indignity and wants to ensure that others will never have to

 This conviction is rooted in Mr. Ebouaney's performance, which is
a muscular assertion of willfulness. He can't keep his hands still,
as if tapping out the to-do list in his head before time runs out;
it's a beautiful realization of obsessive behavior. Mr. Ebouaney
shows us the preening volatility of Lumumba, a resourceful
perfectionist, and dares us to understand him. 

 It's a flat-out thrill to see a movie about African politics that
doesn't condescend to audiences by placing a sympathetic white
African at the center. Mr. Peck makes no plea for crocodile tears;
his ambitions are as wide and encompassing as those of his subject.
He's out to make a film that exposes the ugliness of cold war
politics and knee-jerk imperialism. The movie's view is that
Lumumba was sacrificed to stop African independence. His enemies
used the hollow, well-meaning guise of stamping out the Communist
threat. And "Lumumba" lets neither the United States nor the United
Nations off the hook: it implicates both in his assassination. The
irony is that Congo remains embroiled in overthrow and turmoil, the
bleakest Pandora's box ever to be pried open.

 "Lumumba" brings on new characters and revelations at a whirlwind
pace; it's like the onrush of a tropical storm. It's fascinating,
too, to watch a filmmaker work out his own complicated feelings
about his subject, in this case a hero who was not a particularly
likable human being. Mr. Peck, who wrote the screenplay with Pascal
Bonitzer, understands the quicksilver mind of Lumumba. (He also
directed the acclaimed 1991 documentary "Lumumba — Death of a
Prophet," which served as a warm-up.)

 This director includes scenes that could come out of an agitprop
Marx Brothers comedy, like the pre-independence exchange between
Lumumba and the Belgian bureaucrat Ganshof Van der Meersch (André
Debaar). When Lumumba asks if it's Belgium's intention to form a
government or commission a fact-finding mission, Van der Meersch
sneers, "It's a fact-finding mission to form a government."

 This is a movie about chaos and regret, focusing on the unleashing
of forces greater than any one person could hope to handle and the
carnage, however necessary, left in their wake. Mr. Peck's gambit
works, and the result is a great film and a great performance.


 Directed by Raoul Peck; written (in French, with English
subtitles) by Mr. Peck and Pascal Bonitzer; director of
photography, Bernard Lutic; edited by Jacques Comets; music by
Jean-Claude Petit; production designer, Denis Renault; produced by
Jacques Bidou; released by Zeitgeist Films. At the Film Forum, 209
West Houston Street, South Village. Running time: 115 minutes. This
film is not rated.

WITH: Eriq Ebouaney (Patrice Lumumba), Alex Descas (Joseph Mobutu),
Théophile Moussa Sowié (Maurice Mpolo), Maka Kotto (Joseph Kasa
Vubu), Dieudonné Kabongo (Godefroid Munungo), Pascal Nzonzi (Moïse
Tshombe) and André Debaar (Walter J. Ganshof Van der Meersch).