IN THE darkness of the movie theater, a caravan of cars lumbers along a dirt road, headlights blinking in the twilight. Then a voice in French comes forth.
"You never knew about that night in Katanga. No one was supposed to know."
Thus starts director Raoul Peck's Lumumba, a 2000 biopic that's just been released in America. Peck hails from Haiti, and it's a blessing he did this film about the life of Patrice Lumumba - Pan-Africanist, freedom fighter and first prime minister of the Republic of the Congo. The director gave voice to Lumumba's ghost, speaking out to us 40 years after his grisly, heinous murder and basically lets the story tell itself. We can imagine with horror what African-American directors Spike Lee or John Singleton would have done with it.
The film was made last year, but you didn't see it nominated at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film. Eriq Ebouaney, who brilliantly portrayed Lumumba, garnered no praise for his performance. Last year, American film critics were obsessed with flying Chinese. They had no time for superb political tales about the assassination of an African head of state and the country that ordered, planned, set up and helped carry out what amounted to a mob hit: the United States of America.
There is much criticism of Africa today, most of it justified. More than one African expatriate, either in Europe or the United States, has excoriated that gaggle of tin-plated despots who have taken over and ruined one African nation after another. But the blame needs to be spread around a bit. One of those tin-plated despots was Mobutu Sese Seko, the thug who misruled and terrorized Congolese for decades and then robbed them blind. As Peck shows in his film, this hoodlum rose to and remained in power because of America.
In the film, Mobutu is, in 1959, plain old Joseph-Desire Mobutu, who joins Lumumba's Mouvement National Congolais - the MNC - and latches onto the future prime minister's coattails as he rises to political prominence. Later, with civil war raging in the Congolese province of Katanga, the army in revolt and atrocities being committed against Belgian nationals, Mobutu, with Central Intelligence Agency backing, engineers a coup and deposes Lumumba and President Joseph Kasavubu in September 1960.
These details are in the film. They're also in The Judas Factor, a 1992 book by Karl Evanzz about the assassination of Malcolm X. Evanzz devotes an entire chapter to Lumumba's assassination, quoting extensively from Idaho Sen. Frank Church's committee report "Alleged Assassination Plots Against Foreign Leaders," released in 1975.
Reading some of the things Evanzz reveals, you have to wonder what our government has against organized crime. In 1960, members of the National Security Council met and decided Lumumba had to go. In September, after Mobutu's coup, the CIA hired Belgian mercenaries to kidnap and kill Lumumba. The plan wasn't carried out because Lumumba, although under house arrest, was surrounded by United Nations troops and forces sympathetic to him.
According to Evanzz, the CIA put out a false story about Lumumba's infant daughter dying in Europe in hopes of luring him from the house. It worked, and Mobutu's troops arrested Lumumba on the way to Stanleyville. He was delivered into the tender arms of his sworn enemies in Katanga, bayoneted in the chest by Godefroid Munongo - portrayed, appropriately, as a villain in the film - and then shot in the head by a Belgian mercenary, Evanzz wrote. Lawrence Devlin, the CIA station chief in Katanga, put Lumumba's body in the trunk of his car and took it to a spot where it was dumped into a vat of acid, CIA-supplied, according to Evanzz.
Afterward, the CIA Katanga station sent a cable to headquarters that read, "Thanks for Patrice. If we had known he was coming we would have baked a snake."
That quote isn't in the movie, but it came as no surprise to Marshall Clayborne, who took in Thursday night's first feature at the Charles. Clayborne was about 30 when Lumumba died, and he remembers newspaper accounts that "implied Lumumba was a traitor. I took it at that and let it go." Reading more varied sources wised Clayborne up.
Lyle Muhammad, a writer for the Nation of Islam newspaper The Final Call, was at Thursday's second show. He was born five years after Lumumba was killed in 1961.
"I first heard about Lumumba as a junior in college when I read the works of Franz Fanon," Muhammad said. "The timing of the movie is key, with a call for a United States of Africa. But it was saddening to see the empty seats. You say the name Patrice Lumumba today, a lot of people don't know it."
In early 1961, few people knew all the details of Lumumba's death. A gullible media accepted the government's official version. But two years later, one of the co-conspirators in Lumumba's death, Katangan leader Moise Tshombe, told a Belgian newspaper of his complicity. Only one American newspaper printed the story.
It was Muhammad Speaks, the predecessor of the paper Lyle Muhammad now writes for. No, we weren't supposed to know about that night in Katanga, but thanks to alternative media sources, we now do.