Nov 14, 2001 at 12:00 am

Patrice Lumumba was the democratically elected prime minister of the former Belgian Congo, a charismatic figure who held office for only 12 weeks in 1960 before being kidnapped, tortured and murdered by his political opponents. His story resonates on both a personal and historical level, being both that of a promising young champion of self-determination being cut down in his prime and the much more complex tale of a man who appeared on the scene before his historical moment had arrived.

Director Raoul Peck’s biopic is very good when dealing with the personal tragedy of Lumumba, but deficient in supplying the viewer with much-needed context. What the film can’t convey — or assumes the viewer already knows — is the singularly oppressive and brutal history of the Belgian colonization of the Congo, and the nature of the internecine forces that were left behind once independence was achieved.

As a result, the first half of the film is confusing, as Lumumba rather hurriedly goes from postal worker to beer salesman to rising star in the Congolese National Movement. But once he is in power, the narrative line becomes clearer, the set trap more apparent as it closes in. Thanks to a nuanced performance by Eriq Ebouaney, Lumumba is shown as less plaster saint than reckless idealist (many who met him at the time thought he was “unstable”), someone whose contrarian temperament aided his downfall.

This is also a cold war drama and lurking in the background are the anxious agents of the United States determined to keep the Congo from the Russian sphere of influence, something which Peck actually plays down and with good reason: The United States might once again have erred on the side of perceived political expediency in helping to usher Lumumba to his fate, but that fate seemed sealed anyway.

The legacy of Belgian occupation was better fulfilled by Lumumba’s former friend and successor, the monstrous Joseph Mobotu, who with U.S. approval spent 32 years destroying his country. But that, like so much, is beyond the scope of this interesting but sketchy film.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), 7:30 p.m. on Monday. Call 313-833-3237.

Click here to visit the official Lumumba Web site.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].