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Lumumba tells in grimly appropriate bullet points the story of the rise and fall of Patrice Lumumba, the prime minister of Congo-Léopoldville from its moment of independence in 1960 to Lumumba’s ousting and killing in a coup less than three months later.

If you don’t know anything about Lumumba, Raoul Peck’s film will tell you just enough of what you need to know. How a charismatic and politically engaged young man went from being a successful beer salesman to the country’s first prime minister by espousing national and pan-African ideals. How this stirred resentment from rivals more wedded to a tribal and regional politics. And how they caballed with the ousted rulers of the Belgian Congo and the CIA to bring about Lumumba’s downfall and squalid execution as he tried to flee the country.

They were aided enormously by a turn of events: a crisis in the country precipitated by a mutiny of black soldiers against the white officer class, which Lumumba’s rivals – army chief of staff Joseph Mobutu and Godefroid Munongo of the breakaway region of Katanga – exploited for their own ends.

Director and co-writer Raoul Peck has decided to stick to the facts and goes at the historical record in breathless fashion. One second Lumumba is selling beer, the next he’s arguing politics with rivals, the next he’s striking up an uneasy alliance with Joseph Kasa-Vubu – who’ll become president when Lumumba becomes PM – then the mutiny leading to panic on the streets, Lumumba’s attempts to restore order through the use of his own powers of oratory and so on.

Occasionally Peck eases off on the forward thrusters to give us an illustrative Hollywood moment. Like the scene at the independence ceremony when the King of Belgium’s address – a thinly veiled tissue of condescension – results in Lumumba tearing up the speech he was about to give and instead responding with both barrels, to tumultuous applause.

It’s unusual to see a black African story from a black African perspective. To see white people as a rioting rabble, for example, as the prosperous but no longer ruling class of colonial Belgians are shown here. Also unusual not to have a black African story mediated through a white character, like the entirely fictitious doctor played by James McAvoy in The Last King of Scotland (about the rise and fall of Idi Amin in Uganda).

Lumumba argues with his political rivals
Lumumba argues with his political rivals

Lumumba is shown as a devoted father and husband and there is a touch of the saint in the way his character is written. We’re in no doubt whose side we’re on. Against this: Eriq Ebouaney’s charismatic performance as Patrice Lumumba, a guy with all the gifts.

It is particularly well cast all the way through though. Alex Descas as the scheming but superficially implacable Joseph Mobutu (who’d rule the Democratic Republic of the Congo and then Zaire, as the country became known, for decades). Maka Kotto as President Kasa-Vubu, a principle-free politician constantly tasting the air to work out which way he should lean. And Dieudonné Kabongo and Pascal N’Zonzi as the Katanga breakaways determined to bring Lumumba down because his mix of national and pan-African politics threatens their power base built on tribal affiliations.

It is a sleek film, moving at speeds that will be too fast for some, but its decision not to overdo the contextualising does allow it to cover a lot of ground. It deals, for instance, with Lumumba’s supposed communism in a sentence. Nor does it belabour its points about external political interference from the likes of the USA. It happened, the film tells us, and that’s that.

So, a historical overview, really, rather than in-depth portrait, the newspaper headlines done at a charismatic and colourful gallop but with the overriding sense of chaos lurking, as you get at moments of great political tumult. Lumumba – one moment he’s selling beer, the next he’s prime minister, the next he’s dead.

Lumumba – Watch it/buy it at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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