”Most of the time, when I see a black character in a movie, I am just waiting for the moment that I will be ashamed of something that he will do — or that they will make him do,“ says Haitian director Raoul Peck. A former minister of culture in Haiti, the 48-year-old director recently visited Los Angeles to promote his new film, Lumumba, a biography of the Congolese activist and politician Patrice Lumumba, who was assassinated in 1961. ”Whether we like it or not,“ says Peck, ”an additional weight that a black filmmaker has on his shoulders is to somehow save your own villages, your own history and memories, because no one else is going to do it for you. And“ — he smiles — ”we still have to make movies. We are filmmakers, not historians.“
Born in Haiti, raised in the Congo and France (he now lives in Paris), a student of both engineering and economics, as well as a former journalist and photographer, Peck has made a career out of balancing and integrating the roles of artist, activist and historian. His films (which include Haitian Corner, Man on the Shore and the 1992 documentary Lumumba: Death of a Prophet) are subtle but purposeful essays on memory and history, identity and power, in which race and ethnicity are central — specifically the way they are constructed and manipulated in movies and life. No matter the genre, the films deftly intermingle elements of fiction and documentary, a combination that gives them a quiet urgency, putting them somewhere between the incisive, thoughtful work of Charles Burnett and the protest politics of Ken Loach. And while Peck‘s films have played on the festival circuit to great critical acclaim, until now they’ve failed to make an impact in the United States.
That may change with Lumumba, which is already an art-house hit in New York. In this film, Peck has not only retrieved a pivotal historical figure from relative (Western) obscurity, he has created a paean to the radicalism and hope of that earlier age. But the film is not simply rooted in nostalgia. ”It‘s important for me because it’s not just about the past,“ says Peck quietly. ”It‘s a film about today, about trying to get a sense that we are on the same planet, that we all have the same hopes. The ’60s were really 10 years of hope for everywhere in the world. Imagine all those countries in Africa getting their independence, the U.N. changing its face, the Kennedy era, the civil rights movement, all those leaders who knew each other — Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Lumumba. Malcolm X repeatedly spoke of Lumumba in his speeches; Lumumba was an inspiration to him. The world was going to change. That was the great hope. The film is about that, too.“
Lumumba remains a controversial and misunderstood figure in need of sympathetic dusting off. One of the most painful aspects of Peck‘s haunting film is the orchestration of his downfall. The decks were stacked against Lumumba from the start, and it would have been easy for Peck to simply settle for a note of futility, despair. Yet the director — employing a voice-over that quotes from real-life letters that the activist wrote to his wife near the end of his life — has the man, and his film, express optimism about the future of both Africa and the world.
”That was necessary for the film,“ says Peck. ”It’s like his legacy, like leaving something to your children, to your people. It would have to be on a positive note. It had to say that somewhere along the line there will be victory, there will be a new Congo or a new Africa. It was important to show that, because the film is not just made to criticize or to show how he was killed. It‘s also intended to say that you can change things, and death is just part of it but not all of it, and we can build on what we know happened. But to build it, you have to know it.“