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[whitespace] 'Lumumba' From the Grave: Eriq Ebouaney narrates "Lumumba' from a posthumous perspective.

African Hero

'Lumumba' works despite martyr complex

By Richard von Busack

IT'S WORTH CELEBRATING that the film Lumumba got made, as a story of an African hero, as a sweeping period film shot on a low budget. This achievement is so surprising, indeed, that I can overlook the starchy characterization of Patrice Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney, forceful yet likable despite the script). Director Raoul Peck, a documentary filmmaker, is in the martyr-memorializing business: his Lumumba is a hard-working cipher who addresses the audience as if they were a public meeting. We're not even spared the time-honored scene where Lumumba's wife tells him to come to bed because he's been up working half the night.

Lumumba, murdered in 1961, was the first prime minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. As a member of the small Batetela nation, Lumumba understood how tribal conflict threatened an independent Congo; as a European-educated citizen of the Belgian Congo, he understood how much stock the West put into parliamentary procedure. The forces that wiped out Lumumba included the usual tribal rivalries, inflamed by Europe's carving up of Africa into plantation-colonies that forced ancient enemies together. Lumumba was also the victim of the larger rivalries between the USSR and the United States; his death was a Cold War crime that the film is careful to pin on John F. Kennedy and his CIA.

The film, shot in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, gives a solid outline of the events around independence. The Belgian government planned a slow pullout, which only precipitated the activities of Lumumba and his fellow politicians. However, major hurdles followed the Belgian withdrawal: the mutiny of the national army, which attacked and raped white settlers (even the nuns weren't spared) and the secession of the mineral-rich Katanga province.

Peck frames this story in an unfortunate way: it's narrated by Lumumba after his death, while his body is being dismembered and buried in an unmarked location. Heavy dread hangs over the picture, and Lumumba's stoic words hardly forestall it. Narration is so often a failure in the movies that its use ought to be discouraged from film schools on up. The prize line here is "No one foresaw the events that would change everything." Never has a narrator uttered such an inane remark: the very least you can expect from a movie is events that will change everything that happens in it.

The ending couldn't have been even implicitly happy. Lumumba was followed by Joseph Mobuto (Alex Descas), later Mobotu Sese Seko, a thief of such rapacity that he could only be compared to the Congo's founder, the stupendously greedy King Leopold III. The film works best as an introduction to a figure whose memory should be honored; it's lesser work as yet another lesson in how integrity leads to death. Would it have been possible to show, somehow, that the spirit that will save Africa is living in the continent's people, rather than buried in a shallow grave?

LUMUMBA (Unrated; 104 min.), directed by Raoul Peck, written by Pascal Bonitzer and Peck, photographed by Bernard Lutic and starring Eriq Ebouaney and Alex Descas, opens Friday at the Towne Theater in San Jose.

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From the November 8-14, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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