The opening and closing scenes of Lumumba—a powerful biographical tribute to Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister of Congo, after it was turned over by Belgium in 1960—focus on his agonizing torture and murder at the hands of his political adversaries. At first, the decision to dwell on grisly details, such as Belgian hired hands sawing off and then burning parts of his body, seems like a cheap and gratuitous way to bait the audience's sympathies. But as director Raoul Peck's passionate history lesson unfolds, it becomes clear that Lumumba's martyrdom was an enduring political act, sealing a legacy that might otherwise have fallen victim to insidious spin. Peck, who first addressed the subject in his 1992 documentary Lumumba: Death Of A Prophet, rushes through the events at breakneck speed, without allowing much time for orientation. Yet for all the occasional confusion and narrative gaps, the pace suits the abbreviated life of a radical, dangerous thinker who was steamrollered by the forces of history. Played with mesmerizing conviction by Eriq Ebouaney, Lumumba labors as a third-class colonial postal worker and beer salesman while rising in the Congolese National Movement, which strove for independence from Belgium. After spending six months in jail for subversive behavior, he's whisked to a conference in Brussels, where Belgian leaders are working out the conditions for Congo's liberation in June 1960. While the first elected president, Joseph Kasavubu (Maka Kotto), shows deference to the colonialists, Lumumba, his prime minister and defense secretary, refuses to forget their long tradition of slavery and exploitation, an attitude that swiftly gets him into trouble. His goal of Congolese unity meets with opposition from all sides, from the U.S. and U.N. to other leaders within the country, such as Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas), a duplicitous military general, and Moïse Tshombe (Pascal N'Zonzi), who represents a major province that's vying for secession. Though not always coherent in articulating the divisions from within and without, Lumumba still captures the palpable intensity of Lumumba's last days in the hornets' nest: After he's been in office for a few months, his assassination becomes a dreadful inevitability. The only questions are when, and by whom. Peck directs with a heavy hand, especially in the didactic finale, but his feeling for the subject is undeniable, and his observations are frequently illuminating. Lumumba's life and death serve as a prime example that if freedom is not granted, it must be taken, and often at a high price.
More from The A.V. Club