Film Review of Lumumba
Anthropology 258: African Societies
I have seen Lumumba as a traditional film containing the ten years before and immediately following the independence of DRC. In other words, the fact that the theme was based in Africa did not tweak the way in which the narrative itself was presented, as it happens often with other movies focusing in the “underdeveloped” nations. I especially liked the way in which the urban and rural Congo was depicted, because it didn’t fix with the notion of a barren land.
In its treatment of the Congolese independence and ensuing struggle among the various political leaders, the film put a particular emphasis in detailing particular motives behind each action, rather than lumping them together. The tension between minister Lumuma and president Kasavubu before they join forces in the Belgian Roundtable, the political isolation of general Mobutu and his later allegiance to the US intervention, and the hostilities between Katanga’s leader and Lumumba are the three main forces that intertwine together to create a cohesive storytelling.
In the stages preluding the independence, Lumumba is depicted as a radical nationalist whose straightforward arguments for interparty unity and sovereignty against colonial powers, including the former ruling Belgium, is set in delicate contraposition with a moderate Kasavubu. Kasavubu is really shown as a reactionary party with no set agendas, but his and Lumumba’s interests coincide in wanting a stronger power that should come from an independent Congo. In the same way, Mobutu shows stern will to abolish all forms of white control in the new Congo, for which reason he separates himself from Lumumba’s supporters. It is strange that in trying to establish an independent Congo free from foreign powers, he has to rely on the help from the United States. Lastly, the tensions between Lumumba and the Katangan leader is explained as a conflict of interests over the natural resources, abundant in Katanga, and the conflict of a regionalist administration against a nationalist administration. This differs from oversimplified explanations portrayed by the media describing conflicts as arising solely out of foreign intervention and internal tribalism. (Which is the case with Lumumba, but has been more intricately explained, along with other influencing factors as well.)
An aspect that seems flawed is the representation of political organization among the Belgians and the Congolese. Within the fim, Belgian and Congolese political actors contrast generally in that the Belgians hold more organized institutions and that most of what is shown is what would appear in a press conference, whereas the Congolese are exposed in the logistics of their planning, depicting them are more “human”, but at the same time as less organized than their European counterparts.
For example, there is no single non-political interruption during the Belgian Roundtable where political officers discuss granting independence to Congo. All procedures within the Belgian system seem to run smooth, where orders become executions; politicians talk about “matters of high order”. On the other hand, Congolese representatives celebrating at the waiting room (Apparently, there are two contiguous rooms in which each party is sitting and discussing. Is it that the Belgians were not willing to share the same room for the “roundtable”, or is it that the director wanted a smooth transition to the next scene, with celebrations back in Leopoldville?) talk about family relationships or discuss who’s going to get this or that position in the government.
Contrasts are sharper in occasions when political authorities from both Congo and Belgium meet. In the parliament session declaring the independence, Belgian officers, as well as the king, do the strictly protocolar, while Lumumba and his adviser go back and forth, and even abandon the place discussing Lumumba’s speech. When the government is chartered, Lumumba and Kasavubu sit discussing whom they should appoint as ministers, and in doing so they argue for the prominence of family ties.
There are two exceptions to this general rule of contrasting Belgian and Congolese organizations. During the Roudtable, restaurant servants in and out while they chat. This is the only occasion when a Belgian is seen making political commentaries in a non-structured, non-formal setting. Then, when Lumumba speaks in parliament after being demoted by Kasavubu, there is the only formal session in which Lumumba speaks in public following protocols. Even this scene is preceded by Lumumba jumping on top of a car and sharing his anger with his supporters.
This contrast, purposeful or not, seems to make the point that the Congolese are unorganized people who will lean on their personal preferences when making governmental decisions, unable to show impartiality, thus confirming in structure what the Belgian politicians pose in content; that “those barbarians cannot govern themselves and will break into fight when granted independence”. It can be thus argued that racism is ingrained in the film.
It could be argued that this way of proceeding was a device by which the Congolese as a whole were to be depicted as personal victims against an impersonal Belgian system, and that deepening further into the Belgian political actors was neither relevant to the narrative of the film nor useful in dramatization. It can also be said that the Congolese political agents were in fact disorganized because Congo was a nation in the process of being built, and that pretending that the Congolese were equipped with professional political tools would be an overstatement. I do not know what the reality might be. The depicition of Congolese political agents as disorganized cannot be a problem if they really are disorganized, but I believe that they become an instrument of stereotypification once it becomes a force by itself rather than a representation.
Several aspects of the political history of Congo were not clear. The most important portion is the rationale of Mobutu behind claiming Lumumba, whose death he facilitated, as a national hero. My guess is that Mobutu wanted to make use of the nationalistic meaning that Lumumba carries to legitimize, or support, his own government. In the film, the scene depicts the proclamation of Lumumba as hero simultaneously with the killing of Lumumba years earlier, thus making it clear that Mobutu did not hail Lumumba out of personal friendship. Even though the use of nationalistic heroes is of widespread use in nations with a weak political foundation, it is not clear whether or not the message “Mobutu used Lumumba for his benefit, both before and after his death.” was the intended one by the director, especially when considering that our preceptor pointed out that Lumumba is, after all, a hollywood blockbuster.
It was never clear whether Katanga, the wealthy province of Congo that apparently maintained its independence at the time of Lumumba’s death, is the actual Republic of Congo, or one of the provinces within the Democratic Republic of Congo intending to secede from it. An old map at the website of the History of Belgian Colonization of the Congo shows that Katanga is the southeastern portion of Congo, covering about one fourth of the national territory. The ambiguity confused me throughout the film while I tried to identify contemporary repercussions of Katanga secession.
Also, at the end of the film, Lumumba runs away to Stanleyville, while the producing company of the film, Zeitgeist, explains that he was running to Leopoldville. Also, the idea that Lumumba was running to a particular region to gather popular support goes against the notion, given throughout the film, that Lumumba was an exception among regionalist rulers, who instead promoted the national unity of Congo.
Setting details aside, I believe Lumumba was an excellently staged film and a potential model for nationalistic films that does not give itself away as state propaganda. Lumumba’s speech in front of the Congolese parliament and the Belgian king accusing imperial powers for responsibility of ethnic, economic, and political upheaval in the newly born Congo was a touching anti-colonial declaration I have never listened to before.