Memory of Lumumba

Today, 17 January, is the anniversary of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961. Saying it is the 53rd anniversary isn’t a particularly round date, but, like every anniversary, it is a moment to pause and think about the memory of someone who has passed. And perhaps we ought to take a moment to read through now declassified documents from the U.S. government about covert actions before and after Lumumba’s brief moment in power.

For me, the anniversary brings me back to Raoul Peck’s documentary Lumumba: La mort d’un prophète (1990). It’s a very different film than his wide-release bio-pic, not only because Lumumba (2000) is a fiction film and bit of (excellent) public history, but also because of the almost claustrophobic intimacy of the 1991 documentary. In many ways, Lumumba: La mort d’un prophète is about Peck and what the assassination means for his own place in the world. An intimate encounter with displacement and diaspora, really. Peck employs what we could call an aesthetics of detour – an effort to say something by bringing the expression (here, film) to the point where it cannot speak. The loss is just that much for Peck. The loss is that much because Lumumba represents more than a man and a country. Lumumba, the prophet, died because, like all prophets, he spoke against the king. In this case, the king, colonialism, was thought dead or dying, but the assassination tells us the opposite is true. The king kills the prophet. In his place, after the death of a prophet, there is the new life of the king. Colonial domination returns and makes its way back into and against the postcolonial opening.

Peck wants to document Lumumba’s death, but documentary memory, like all memory, fails. He can’t get to Zaire; the shots of walkways through the Brussels airport are as articulate and as vivid an expression of loss of hope, colonial and postcolonial distance, and dispossession one can find in literature and the arts.

The opening sequence is amazing:

Speaking of Lumumba from Belgium, forty years after his death, says everything about Peck’s sense of history and memory. How something like the legacy of Lumumba’s assassination and Mobutu’s rule after cannot be separated from Leopold’s massacres and devastation, colonialism’s blowback after the fall of colonial rule.

And of course Peck’s own identity, dislocated as it is between Zaire, Haiti, and the United States, is intimately related to the history of dispossession and dislocation that circulates between Europe, Africa, and the Americas. Lumumba: La mort d’un prophète is saturated with memory. Too much.

But alongside the senses of dislocation, dispossession, and quiet despair, Peck also insists that we remember the meaning of hope, revolution, and a certain glimpse of postcolonial future that cannot be forgotten, even if it was embraced, at its moment of arrival, but the forces of its downfall. Peck stages just that with archival footage:

“His future assassins are amongst those who embrace him on his return. But that is another story.” That other story is a part of the big story Peck wants to tell about, or to at least begin finding words for: Africa after colonial rule. Peck’s deferral is not a choice here, though, and that is the profound claim of the documentary. Deferral is already in the memory of hope and in the long shadow cast by the loss of hope. Words fail when faced with this sadness. Peck puts it on the screen as Lumumba being welcomed after his release. Wrists in bandages.

Rest in peace, Patrice Lumumba. Peck’s remembrance is worth our time today.