In large part this is thanks to the performance of Eriq Ebouaney as Patrice Lumumba, the Congolese nationalist leader at the center of Peck's film. Lumumba was prime minister of the Congo for only the first two months after independence was declared -- two months so filled with incident that they alone could occupy 10 hours of film. Ebouaney -- who looks more like Malcolm X than Denzel Washington did -- infuses Lumumba with the sort of charisma and ferocity that Washington's Malcolm never quite achieved.
For those not old enough to remember -- and it's unlikely that many American schools give the subject more than a cursory mention -- the late '50s and early '60s saw a complete shift in the political geography of Africa. Within a period of just three or four years, more than a dozen "new" countries emerged from the disintegration of European colonialism. In essence, the leading powers of Europe had long since considered Africa their possession; the fact that people already lived on the continent was of no importance because they were, in Europe's eyes, black savages regarded as animals (by the most right-wing) or childlike (the liberal view).
In 1885, a European conference affirmed the right of King Leopold II of Belgium to consider the Congo his personal property. There were changes and concessions over the next 75 years, but it wasn't until 1960 that it became clear Belgium had to give up all legal authority over the country.
Of course, although the authority is to be returned to the inhabitants, there are always the questions of which inhabitants, within what borders and under what political system. As in any postcolonial situation, in the Congo there were numerous factions, motivated by various ideals or self-interests. In Peck's film, Lumumba represents the strongest nationalist tendency, the least likely to play kissy-face with the former Belgian rulers. In the middle is the weak-willed compromiser, Joseph Kasa Vubu (Maka Kotto).
Actually, as the film makes clear, "middle" may not have any real meaning in this context: This was no simple linear conflict between two sides. Among the Africans, there were figures such as Moïse Tshombe (Pascal N'Zonzi), whose Katanga province held most of the country's most valuable resources and therefore sought to be a separate country, citing the tribal and regional divisions that existed before the Belgians arbitrarily defined it as part of the Congo. There was also Joseph Mobutu (Alex Descas), who betrayed Lumumba for his own ends almost as soon as Lumumba had installed him at the head of the military.
And, most important to the final outcome, there was, as always, the Cold War, with the United States and the Soviet Union throwing their weight around behind the scenes and having the power and wealth to determine the future of these newly "independent" countries. With Lumumba seemingly more sympathetic to the Soviet Union, it was easy for Mobutu to cut a deal with representatives of JFK -- a deal that led to three decades of dictatorial rule and to yet more civil unrest and assassinations earlier this year.
Peck tells his story through Lumumba's eyes in a long posthumous flashback that takes place as the protagonist's body is hideously being cut into pieces and burned so as to leave no evidence of the circumstances of his death and no "holy relics" that could rally his supporters. Although the film tries to be a portrait of the man rather than a mere history lesson, we get only a few scenes covering his rise to popularity and his life before his final year.
As a result, we never get a clear sense of how or why Lumumba became the man he did, why he wasn't simply another Mobutu. Nor do we see much of the detail of his rise from postal worker to beer salesman to political leader. Nor is his personal life dealt with extensively: We see him with his daughter frequently, but it's almost halfway through the film before we see his wife. Still, we do get a strong sense of his character -- willful and idealistic, yet filled with a passion, impatience and faith that make him both admirable and at the same time, thanks to the grim realities of the situation, doomed to fail at most of what he strived for.
Unlike Richard Attenborough's mawkish Gandhi -- whose inability to present a coherent portrait of its political setting made the conflicts in its later scenes seem to have sprung out of nowhere -- Lumumba manages to give us, from the start, a comprehensible, if necessarily simplified, sense of an extremely complicated moment in history. It may be a portrait of a troubled leader, but it's also -- in the best sense of the phrase -- a thrilling history lesson.