Thursday, February 08, 2007


The following is on the film Lumumba, a historical film based on the events surrounding Congolese independence and the murder of the first Congolese prime minister Patrice Lumumba. The film is directed by Raoul Peck, who ten years earlier directed a documentary on Lumumba's life, Lumumba: Death of a Prophet.
Near the beginning of Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba, as Lumumba and his political comrades passionately discuss decolonization, the hot-headed Mpolo exclaims in frustration, “We’ll eat them raw!” “Be careful,” Lumumba replies with an ironic smile, “They’ll take you for an anthropophage.” The idea of cannibalism that Lumumba invokes here is a joke, yet it also provides a potent historical metaphor that is subtly reflected in images throughout the film. These images of “cannibalism” allude to the larger cycle of violence and suppression that is shown as thematic of Belgium’s historical relationship with the Congo.
One of the stereotypes of Africa cultivated by the Europeans for centuries was that of cannibalism—the stock character of the missionary in the large black pot. In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness lauded as one of the “greats” of the Western canon, the narrator Marlowe calls the “natives” he sees, as he steams up the River Congo, “cannibals.” When Marlowe asks the “native” headman what they’d do if they caught one of him, the man says “Eat ‘im!”[1] However, if the stereotype was used by racist Europeans to indicate the “savagery” of their colonized subjects, it was also deftly turned into a metaphor for the brutality and exploitation characterized by slavery, colonization, and subsequent European meddling in African affairs. The 18th century Igbo writer Oluadah Equiano writes of his fears when taken aboard the slave ship and seeing the large copper furnaces he asks “if we were not to be eaten by those white men with horrible looks, red faces, and long hair?”[2] In Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s novel Devil on the Cross, he imagines a grotesque competition of thieves and robbers in which fanged politicians propose creating a pipeline of blood from Kenya to the West. The violence against and exploitation of fellow human beings for economic gain both in the colonial era and the neocolonial era is the cannibalism that they project upon those they exploit.
In the film Lumumba, images evocative of cannibalism are shown in association with the supposedly departing Belgians. Framing the film are images of a celebration over which Mobutu presides; white women in queenly hats clink wine glasses and cut into a slab of meat. This opening celebration is interspersed with old photographs of Congolese enslavement under Leopold II and the Belgians. Sad eyes in skeletal faces, naked chests. Chained hands. The image of cutting into meat is repeated when the two soldiers pull shrouded corpses out of a shallow grave, chopping into sheet covered flesh, sawing at it like tough meat. This hidden butchery symbolically provides the “meat” for the celebration. Although the celebration takes place several years after “independence,” the Belgians don’t seem to have gone anywhere. They continue to enjoy the “fruits of the land.” Moreover, by invoking Lumumba’s spirit, Mobutu cannibalizes his life and vision—using his death, which he had symbolically participated in, to provide the authorization for his own rule.
Mobutu merely continues in the structures (and cycle of violence) laid out for him by the Belgians. By refusing to allow Lumumba to do more than official “information gathering” until the official handover, the Belgians have effectively hamstrung Lumumba’s government. As the investors note during the meetings in Brussels, the entire civil service was Belgian—the Congolese had been deliberately been kept in inferior positions; with the departure of the Belgians, the system for the operation of the nation collapses. The investors in Brussels seem to delight in these visions of chaos. Not only do they set the newly “independent” state up for failure, the Belgians and their allies continue to undermine the authority of the new government. The outside advisors are patronizing to the new prime minister and president to their face, and behind their backs they make deals that ensure the collapse of the nation—with the leaders of Katanga province, with Mobutu. When Lumumba’s plane is diverted and Lumumba orders the pilot to turn around, the pilot maintains that he is Belgian and defies the prime minister, obeying the orders of his Belgian superiors to land. When Lumumba is being smuggled out of his house, the soldier who inspects the car mentions that he is “smoking American cigarettes.”
General Janssens maintains that the army will always be under Belgian control and tells the soldiers that any indication otherwise were merely the lies of politicians. The discontent of the soldiers ripple out from this scene: the rape and killing of Belgians who had remained behind, the invasion of the government house, the massacres carried out under Mobutu’s leadership, and the final abduction and murder of Lumumba and his comrades. The Belgian soldiers who beat Lumumba in prison before independence are echoed in the soldiers who beat him on the plane and the leaders of Katanga who beat him in prison right before he is murdered. But behind this seeming “native” unrest are Belgian “puppeteers.”[3] Janssens boasts seem calculated to rankle. The American CIA agent meets with Mobutu to assure him of American support. Belgians are present at the execution sight, and it is Belgian soldiers who saw into the bodies and dispose of them in fire. Just as the feast at the beginning was interspersed with photos of those who had been exploited by Belgium, Mobutu’s speech at the end of the film is interspersed with the images of the Belgian soldiers burning the bodies of the murdered leaders. In their prison cell before they are murdered, Lumumba and Mpolo laugh desperately together over Lumumba’s old joke about the “anthropophage.” They understand the futility of their own protest and the way in which they are being used—as Lumumba told someone over the phone before his arrest; they are “a sacrifice for the people of Congo.”
At the end of the film, Mobutu’s call for a moment of silence to remember Lumumba is metaphoric for the silence that was imposed upon the people of the Congo. However, the focus of the camera in the end upon the soldier indicates that though silenced, the truth is not forgotten. The soldier in the final shot resembles the soldier who took Lumumba into custody by the riverside. Lumumba had told him that he would regret participating in his arrest; and the soldier in the final scene stares at Mobutu with the knowledge of the truth in his eyes. The narrative device of Lumumba’s posthumous voiceover indicates that his voice cannot be silenced. Although the evidence is burned and Mobutu has “cannibalized” Lumumba’s memory to lend credence to his own rule, the people know the truth. And as the final voiceover indicates, “one day we will have a new history, not one written by Belgium, Paris, (etc), It will be our history.” The fire that the Belgians use to cover up the evidence of the murders can also be read as the fire of the communal imagination. The narrative device is self-reflexive. If there is to be a new history, then the telling of that new history has begun. The photos taken as trophies of Belgian occupation are used as accusations; the story of Lumumba’s murder is told; the “moment” of silence is over.

[1] Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness. Planet PDF p. 82 Downloaded 8 February 2007
[2] Oluadah Equiano. Interesting Narrative. “Boarding a Slave-ship.” Downloaded 8 February 2007.
[3] There are a series of repeated images that mirror pre-independence with post-independence. A recently beaten Lumumba looking out over the airfield as he descends the plane in Brussels for independence negotiations; and a recently beaten Lumumba looking out over the airfield as he descends the plane into captivity. The Belgian soldiers beat him in prison; then the Congolese soldiers beat him in the plane and in prison.


uknaija said...

Thanks for this, I'll see if I can find the film. I've been fascinated by the Congo since I was a child and one of my parents' highlife records used to sing about the war in Congo

kaganof said...

i really appreciate your review of lumumba
i would like to ask your permission to re-post your review, with a link back to your site, on my daily art blog
please let me know
my email address is
best wishes
aryan kaganof