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It would be fair to say that Raoul Peck is obsessed with the life of Patrice Lumumba. Haitian-born Peck was a child in 1963, when his father took the family to Congo as part of a project to replace the white schoolteachers who had recently fled the country, a Belgian colony from 1885 to 1960. That was just two years after Lumumba, the country’s first and only elected premier, was murdered by Belgian soldiers in a plot organized by the CIA.
Peck has already taken one crack at this story, with the 1991 documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet. Now he returns with a potent, if stylistically unexceptional, docudrama on the same subject. It might help to have seen the director’s previous film to understand the events of this onebut not the powerful emotions it evokes.
Lumumba begins after its title character’s death, with a suitably gruesome scene of the disposal of the bodies of the deposed leader and two colleagues. Then it flashes back to a compressed account of Lumumba’s rise from postal worker and beer salesman to leader of the anti-colonial opposition. Arrested and beaten, he’s released from jail because his presence is required in Brussels. (The script, written by Peck and Pascal Bonitzer, doesn’t explain that fellow leaders of Lumumba’s Congolese National Party refused to negotiate with the Belgians without him.) After a half-dozen nations in sub-Saharan Africa gain their independence in a two-year period, Belgium agrees to liberate its colony on June 30, 1960. What Prime Minister Lumumba (Eriq Ebouaney) and President Joseph Kasavubu (Maka Kotto) receive, however, is a country in which Belgians still have significant control, notably over the army.
Mutinies against Belgian Gen. Janssens (Rudi Delhem) and tribal rebellions against the central government quickly destabilize the plans of the fiery Lumumba and the more diplomatic Kasavubu. At the hand-over ceremony, Kasavubu accepts King Leopold II’s paternalistic advice, but Lumumba rejects it, making the Belgians in attendance squirm. With the United Nations providing little help and the United States actively opposing him, the prime minister suggests that he’ll turn to the Soviets for help. (What Lumumba apparently intended was a “nonaligned” position like the one taken by Egypt and India, although that’s not clear from the film’s hasty digest of the events.) Soon Gen. Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas) is in charge, and Lumumba has been betrayed. He’s again imprisoned, tortured, andsix weeks laterkilled. After all, the prime minister has to be dead before Mobutu (later to call himself Mobutu Sese Seko, among other things) can declare him a martyr.
Lumumba doesn’t suggest that its subject was a saint. Even in Peck’s telling, the murdered prime minister was no pragmatist, and his unwillingness to flatter his enemies may have inadvertently led to the horrors of Mobutu’s 32-year rule. Yet it’s easy to understand why Italian director Valerio Zurlini was inspired to create a semifictional, Christlike Lumumba in the 1968 film known in English as Black Jesus. Lumumba embodies purity and selflessness, both saintly characteristics, and as played by Afro-French actor Ebouaney, the man has a vivid, fidgety intensity. Only the occasional appearance of his wife and young daughter acknowledges that Lumumba didn’t live entirely for his country.
Ebouaney’s fervent Lumumba is countered by Descas’ Mobutu, who is merely a monster in the making, not a full-blown fiend; Descas, who has played substantially more easygoing roles in films by such French directors as Claire Denis and Olivier Assayas, portrays Mobutu as an opportunist, but not (yet) a terrifying one. Peck is equally careful in depicting the Americans representing the State Department and the CIA. Such players as “Mr. Carlucci” are shadowy characters, seemingly noncommittal as they supervise the coup and assassination from a discreet distance.
The effect is quietly chilling, although those unacquainted with Lumumba’s case may not realize that these are not composites but real people: Frank Carlucci is now the chairman of the Carlyle Group, a successful merchant bank based in downtown Washington; Patrice Lumumba was sawed into pieces, which were then immersed in acid and finally burned.
British director Ken Loach is often dismissed for making well-meaning leftie films that sacrifice storytelling and characterization for the cause. Now he’s actually made one.
Bread and Roses is a tale of love and labor organizing that allies fiery Mexican illegal immigrant Maya (Pilar Padilla) with earnest Justice for Janitors activist Sam (Adrien Brody). Aside from the fact that it’s set in L.A., this shouldn’t be unfamiliar territory for Loach; three of his recent films, the powerful Land and Freedom and Ladybird, Ladybird and the halfway-good Carla’s Song, feature a romance between an Anglo and a Latino who is either fighting or fleeing a repressive regime. Scripter Paul Laverty also knows this turf: In addition to Carla’s Song, he wrote the recovering-alcoholic-meets-social-worker romance My Name Is Joe, one of Loach’s best films.
The story opens with a taut, credible account of Maya’s arrival in L.A., where her sister, Rosa (Elpidia Carrillo), doesn’t have enough money to pay the smugglers who have brought the newcomer across the border. Maya quickly demonstrates her resourcefulness by escaping, but what she escapes to is something less than the promised land: a low-pay, no-benefits job as a janitor in an office tower. After she meets Sam, Maya’s tiny gestures against the white-collar workers who ignore her escalate to full-spirited activism. Not all the custodians are willing to follow Sam’s confrontational course, however. Given the fact that many of the workers would face deportation upon arrest, you can’t really blame them.
For anyone who followed the Service Employees International Union’s Justice for Janitors campaign in Washington, the basics of this story will not be surprising. L.A. is a more dramatic venue because of the 1990 Battle of Century City, in which riot cops attacked peacefully demonstrating janitorsa publicity coup that forced the country’s largest cleaning company to sign a union contract (and is recapped on video during Sam’s presentation to the workers). Despite this grounding in history, some of Bread and Roses’ details don’t convince: Does the SEIU really hold organizing meetings in buildings whose janitors it’s trying to recruit? And would an organizer encourage any illegal immigrantespecially one with whom he’s romantically involvedto participate in an action in which she’s likely to be arrested?
As in their better films, Loach and Laverty temper the righteousness of their crusade with developments that clearly demonstrate that their heroine is no exemplar. Yet despite a vigorous performance by Padillawho learned English to play the partMaya never comes fully to life. Ultimately, Bread and Roses takes a different path than most Loach films: The social struggle is won, while the personal one is lost. It’s a conclusion that would be stirring, if only it were believable. CP