Sunday, January 17, 2021

Raoul Peck on Patrice Lumumba and the Making of a Martyr

Today marks the 60th anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Émery Lumumba (1925-1961), a leader of the Congolese independence movement who served as the first Prime Minister of the independent Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Republic of the Congo) and who throughout much of his adult life resisted colonialism and corporatism.

As I noted this time last year, I first became aware of and interested in the life of Patrice Lumumba when I attended a special screening of Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck’s film Lumumba at the University of Minnesota Film Society in 2000. (Today, Peck is probably most well-known for his 2016 film based on the writings of James Baldwin, I Am Not Your Negro.)

According to The Guardian, Peak’s 2000 film, Lumumba, which features French actor Eriq Ebouaney in the title role, is a “commendable effort” and a “corrective to imperialism.”

After seeing the film shortly after its release, I did some research on Lumumba and found myself moved by the images that show him captured and bound while on his way to be executed. I was struck by his calm countenance, even as he no doubt knew what awaited him. To this day I find myself wondering if I could be so brave and calm in the face of torture and death.

In commemorating the life of Lumumba on the anniversary of his murder during a US-backed coup 60 years ago, I share Raoul Peck’s reflections on his 1991 feature-length documentary, Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, a film that came out nine years before his feature film Lumumba. These reflections were first published in the book Stolen Images: Lumumba and the Early Films of Raoul Peck (Seven Stories Press, 2012).


When [my 1988 film] Haitian Corner was shown at the Berlin International Film Festival, a Swiss producer offered me a story of a Swiss doctor in Africa, the usual descent-into-Hell, story of war and the clash of civilizations. I was curious and, frankly, relieved and happy that right then, at what you might call the beginning of my career, a producer who had seen my movie was offering me a new project. So I agreed to read the script. Eventually, I declined, but I maintained a good relationship with the producer, who later on became one of the producers for Lumumba: Death of a Prophet.

It is my belief that you can still make your mark as an artist, as a film director, with a project that falls into your lap. The challenge has to do with how you transform it. It doesn’t have to be your own idea; you can also transform someone else’s idea. And I thank God that this has always been my approach because otherwise I would still be waiting for, you know, the miracle that was going to take me to Hollywood Heaven. I would have waited forever. Instead, I have always worked, and part of my work was to take projects that happened my way and make them my own: to transform each one into something that had personal meaning for me. As an artist I don’t always need to start with my vision, but I must always end with it. And you could say Lumumba: Death of a Prophet is the most dramatic example of this. It was my second full-length feature and my first feature-length documentary.

My parents had worked for the UN in Congo and for the Congolese government for twenty-five years. My father was an agronomist and my mother worked for many years as the assistant to the mayor of Leopoldville (now Kinshasa). I’d gone to school there for three years, starting when I was eight, before we moved to New York. But my parents later moved back to Congo, and I returned often to visit them, even after they sent me off to boarding school in France.

When I started writing my letter of intent for the Lumumba feature[-length documentary] film we were planning on making, I realized that I was in fact writing about a totally different story – the story of the Haitians who went to work in Congo, and of how a newly independent African country asked for help from the people of Haiti, a proud and militant country that for nearly two hundred years had been the only one in the world. The history of how the huge and rich Congo had looked to the small Haiti for help is in some ways an absurd story, the work of a Machiavellian mind. The Belgians had all just fled, and so they sought to bring in black doctors, teachers, engineers, and agronomists from Haiti to replace the European ones that had suddenly left. This endeavor could have failed miserably, but the Haitians were well received and integrated. These themes all belonged in the film, it seemed to me. This had happened at a time, the early sixties, when most African countries were just becoming independent. Up until then one was summoned to choose either the Russians or the Americans. The non-aligned movement of Nkrumah, Nasser, Ben Barkah, Gandhi, etc. was still a radical provocation, not the status quo. So this film became my first confrontation. With whom? With myself. By posing questions about images of black mythology, black politics, and black aesthetics, I was questioning my own place in the world – and it became my story as much as it was Lumumba’s. I became the instrument with which to engage the audience.

The rest of the film was the story of an assassination, of the making of a martyr, of a man who was doing nothing more than asking for independence at a time when this was not permitted in this part of the world, in Africa, and so he was killed.

What I learned while making the film turned out to be a deeply painful experience for me. First of all, it took me a year and a half before I could begin to accept Lumumba as a sympathetic character. I couldn't warm up to him, and the reasons for my alienation eluded me. Then I realized that everything I had learned about Lumumba came from the same sources – journalists or politicians from the West who had covered the crisis in the Congo. For them, it was a fearful, traumatic, and arrogant confrontation and they had responded by investing their understanding of Lumumba with all the usual, often racist, clichés. I had been contaminated by those clichés. The underlying racism of the world’s biggest newspapers, of the New York Times, of Le Monde, was naïve in a way. It represented how the world saw Africa, not in political terms, but in primitive, one-dimensional, tribalistic terms. Politics is understood to be complex when it is happening in New York or London, but not if it is happening someplace in Africa. This was, of course, a major obstacle.

So my perception of Lumumba began with him as this crazy, uneducated, ambitious, and corrupt leader. But after a while I saw him as an autodidact, someone who had not much to start with, who was totally isolated, and who could not manage the complexity of the task before him other than as a martyr. The only forceful imprint Lumumba could leave was to die for the cause of African independence.

An important outcome of this creative process was that it taught me the importance and challenge of shaping one’s image. You must hold the key to your own image-making because if you don’t, other people will. And this is the real problem of storytelling: who controls your image, who tells your story.

This is the problem today for those of us who do not rule the world. Cinema has already been molded by and for a Eurocentric point of view, albeit by wave after wave of immigrants. Lumumba: Death of a Prophet, for me, is about those who do not have a history of being on the side of power, and who have to begin to take control. Lumumba failed in his attempt to do that, and was killed for even trying, but he succeeded in one sense, in the same way that, in American history, for example, John Brown did. John Brown failed in his mission to liberate slaves and was also put to death, yet the freeing of slaves came in the wake of his actions and it came in large part because he had made the case for emancipation so compellingly.

Above: Filmmaker Raoul Peck.

Above: Patrice Lumumba, about whom Colin Legum, a journalist, author, and notable anti-Apartheid activist, wrote in 2001: “I had got to know Lumumba reasonably well. . . . I found him gentle, and advanced in his social ideas, formed by his Christian beliefs and admiration for social democratic ideas. . . . Under different circumstances he could have been an impressive leader and saved the Congo from its terrible fate under the likes of the kleptomanic Mobutu.”

Following is a five-minute excerpt from Raoul Peak’s 1991 feature-length documentary, Lumumba: Death of a Prophet.

Related Off-site Links:
Patrice Lumumba (1925-1961) – Sean Jacobs (Jacobin, January 17, 2017).
Brussels Sets Straight Historical Wrong Over Patrice Lumumba Killing – Patrick Smyth (The Irish Times, July 5, 2018).
Congo Rising to Produce Feature Film Patrice Lumumba in Africa; Compelling Story of Martyred Congo Leader Coming to the (January 14, 2021)
In Search of Lumumba – Christian Parenti (In These Times, January 30, 2008).
Patrice Lumumba: The Most Important Assassination of the 20th Century – Georges Nzongola-Ntalaja (The Guardian, January 17, 2011).
Both Belgium and the United States Should Be Called to Account for the Death of Patrice Lumumba – Tim Butcher (The Spectator, March 7, 2015).
Patrice Lumumba’s Daughter: I’m Demanding Belgium Give Back My Father’s Remains – Juliana Lumumba (Jacobin, August 1, 2020).
Belgian Princess Condemns Her Family’s Brutal Colonial History in Congo and Calls for ReparationsDemocracy Now! (July 9, 2020).
Congo’s Patrice Lumumba: The Winds of Reaction in Africa – Kenneth Good (CounterPunch, August 23, 2019).
The Tragedy of Lumumba: An Exchange – Ludo De Witte Colin Legum and Brian Urquhart (The New York Review, December 20, 2001).
Martyr by Choice – Catherine Hoskyns (The New York Review, April 5, 1973).
An Exchange on the Death of Lumumba – A.C. Gilpin and Catherine Hoskyns (The New York Review, April 22, 1971).
Who Killed Lumumba? – Catherine Hoskyns (The New York Review, December 17, 1970).
Central Africa: Hollywood’s Insulting Fantasy Versus a Tragic Reality – Steven Gambardella (Medium, December 1, 2018).
Raoul Peck’s Lumumba Fights Its Corner As a Corrective to Imperialism – Alex von Tunzelmann (The Guardian, June 14, 2012).
Filmmaker Raoul Peck Talks About Karl Marx, Revolutionary Love, and Trump – Ed Rampell (The Progressive, March 1, 2018).
Q&A: Raoul Peck on James Baldwin, the Resistance, and Making I Am Not Your Negro – Teo Bugbee (, February 6, 2017).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Remembering Patrice Lumumba
Remembering Manuela Saenz: “Liberator of the Liberator”
Remembering Fred Hampton
Ben Ehrenreich on the Global Uprisings Against Neoliberalism
Marv Davidov, 1931-2012
Chalmers Johnson, 1931-2010
Hope, History, and Bernie Sanders
Marianne Williamson: “We’re Living at a Critical Moment in Our Democracy”
Remembering the “Brave and Brilliant” Gil Scott-Heron
Kittredge Cherry on the “Tough Questions” Raised by the Uganda Martyrs
John Pilger on Resisting Empire
Resisting the Hand of the Empire
New Horizons

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