On Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1991) & the Ongoing Genocide in Congo

by maya finoh

“The Prophet roams the Grand-Place… he returns to tickle the feet of the guilty.”

Note that a newly restored Lumumba: Death of a Prophet is currently screening at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Rose Cinemas through February 29th. *

Lumumba, la mort du prophète or Lumumba: Death of a Prophet (1991) is a documentary with a little over an hour runtime that pushes beyond the act of simply recounting historical facts. It is the first of two films over the span of 10 years, the other being the feature film Lumumba (2000), in which Raoul Peck explores the life and death of Patrice Émery Lumumba. The first and only democratically-elected Prime Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Lumumba was assassinated on January 17th, 1961 at the age of 35 after being deposed and imprisoned. Lumumba represented a new wave of 1960s Pan-Africanism: an unapologetic nationalist, he was dedicated to a united, non-tribal political party and distinctly oriented towards the self-reliance and freedom of Congo—and all other African nations—from the puppet strings of former colonial masters. His willingness to align with the Soviet Union marked Lumumba for neutralization by anticommunist western nations, primarily Belgian forces, who saw him as a threat to western hegemony. For their dirty work, they utilized former comrades of his willing to betray him for individual greed and scraps of power. Although the CIA denies explicit involvement, they too most likely played a part in this murder. While Peck introduces the viewer to the political life of Patrice Lumumba, we know our conclusion from the beginning: Lumumba is the Prophet, and the Prophet dies.

Peck draws from a variety of sources—archival footage of Central Africa, firsthand accounts via interviews of journalists or Belgian officers, speeches, letters, and photographs—to support his depiction of the DRC in the last days of Lumumba. The documentary begins, situated in early 1990s Belgium with the viewer getting gloomy shots of buildings and short scenes of Belgian people commuting around on a rainy day. Filled with the sound of howling wind, Peck sets the mood of the film by speaking softly over images of the country that sanctioned Lumumba’s assassination. He goes to Belgium in search for Lumumba’s presence there when unable to travel to and film in Zaire, the official name of the Congo from 1971 to 1997. Peck speaks to this concession in the documentary: he, in a matter of fact way, relays to the audience that he let the plane leave for Zaire without him and his filming crew after getting contacted by the Zairean secret service for a meeting. This contact is unsurprising given that Mobutu Sese Seko’s neocolonial government at the time of Peck’s filming made sure to limit journalism and other truth-telling endeavors. A chief military officer who at one point had been Lumumba’s personal aide, Mobutu seized total power of the Congo via a coup d’etat in 1965. He also had a direct hand in moving Lumumba’s murder plot forward.

Unlike documentaries in which the filmmaker renders themselves an invisible spectator, Peck positions himself and his direct connections to the Congo in this documentary by showing the viewer images and video of his childhood self, his parents, and his friends in Congo. Peck moved to Congo in 1962, his father a professor of agriculture while his mother was a secretary for the mayor of Leopoldville, the capital city of Congo now called Kinshasa. His family was a part of a group of Haitians who heeded the call for francophone Black professors, doctors, engineers, and administrative professionals to fill vacancies left after the exit of Belgian colonizers in 1960. The viewer meets both Lumumba and Peck in a way that, even with Lumumba already dead, showcases how few degrees of separation their existences had. One of the first images we see of Lumumba is an old photo of a group of people that includes him, found by Peck’s mother “in a dusty drawer of her office at the town hall.”

Peck is aware of his family’s class position in Leopoldville, and admits that they had the privilege to live in the formerly European, but abandoned post-Independence district of Leopoldville that by the time of his arrival had become the neighborhood of the “well-off Congolese.” Peck also describes the fluidity with which he was to identify as Congolese when it suits him and then be Mundele (a term for white person but also generally a foreigner) in certain group settings. Peck’s family was situated within a world of professionals throughout the Global South in the latter half of the twentieth century offering their expertise to newly independent governments. This is not dissimilar from other practices at the time of formerly colonized peoples traveling to new socialist republics for education, and nations of the Third World offering military support to liberation fronts fighting against colonialism. This film is ultimately a documentary, but not a traditional one: Peck is not simply exploring the subject of Lumumba, Death of Prophet serves as a deeply personal childhood memoir as well.

One can argue that Peck utilizes what Saidiya Hartman calls ‘critical fabulation’ throughout the documentary. There are a multitude of instances in the film when an image crosses the screen and Peck—who remains off-camera for the duration of the film and is only seen via his childhood archive—studies the people in it by creating a speculative account of what each person in the photograph might have thought or desired. An illustrative example of this phenomenon happens when the unfathomable terror of King Leopold II’s genocidal regime in the late 1800s is told descriptively via disturbing colonial photographs with white administrators and Congolese punished for defying mandatory taxes by having their hands cut off. The Congo Free State under Leopold was a colony over which he had sole ownership and led an administration that extinguished the lives of millions of Congolese, decimating the population. In another scene, Peck again shifts from the tragedy of Lumumba and shows present-day footage of the graves of seven Congolese (Zao, Sambo, Mpeia, Ekia, Pemba, Mibange, and Kitoukwa) in Belgium. They were abducted and forcibly brought to the nation to be a part of the human zoo of Tervuren for the Brussels International Exhibition in 1897, died of illness, and remain buried there. As with so many other western European museums and cultural institutions that have been birthed out of colonialism, the contemporary Belgian Royal Museum of Central Africa draws its origins from the ‘colonial section,’ including the human zoo, of the exhibition of 1897. Peck speaks directly in conversation to the spirits of these dead Congolese, as their graves and photos of human zoos flash across the screen. The respect that he offers these seven Congolese within that brief exchange felt like a profound reference to the importance of honoring one’s dead and the religious practice of venerating one’s ancestors that exists in variations across the African diaspora. Peck concludes by saying that while their deaths were terrible, at least they are “keeping the prophet company.” This statement is deliberate: it wasn’t until 2022 that the only remains of Lumumba, a gold tooth kept as a trophy, were returned to Congo from Belgium for a proper burial.

Peck rejects the myth of objectivity and narrates the film with a kind of melancholy that only someone who knows and cares about the implications of Lumumba’s assassination on the Congolese people can summon. Even though the viewer knows how this film will end, Peck is skillfully able to muster a sense of foreboding in the tone of his voice even while off-camera. As footage plays of Lumumba arriving in Brussels for independence negotiations after being released from prison by colonial officials, joyfully welcomed by his compatriots, Peck says knowingly “his future assassins are amongst those who embrace him on his return.” His narration is akin to the chorus leader of a Greek tragedy, playing out in the way Peck describes and foreshadows Lumumba’s death. As Peck chooses to zoom in on a photograph of a stone-faced Lumumba, he narrates that Patrice confided to a friend right before the independence day festivities on June 30th, 1960 that “at long last I can take a rest.” Peck’s response is a lamentation: “How wrong can a prophet be!”

Death of a Prophet does not follow a linear or chronological structure: we are transported between early 1960s Congo, Belgium in the early 1990s, and there’s even a short vignette of the first time Peck held a camera and captured shaky footage of a bullfighter at work. True to the intimate nature of this film, Peck rhetorically questions out loud to the viewer how worthwhile it is to excavate Lumumba’s life and memory from the archive of death. In addition to the reality that Peck wasn’t able to film in the Congo, anti-African bias against the capacity of the Congolese to fully govern themselves oozes through many of the interviews with Belgian officials and reporters. At one point, a white European reporter says that he does not believe that Lumumba was a communist because he always thought that a ‘Bantu’ cannot be a communist due to their ‘extremely social’ nature, implying that Africans are too simple to understand the principles of the political ideology. As an almost direct counter to this ridiculous statement, Peck switches scenes to video of a Congolese reporter who states that as a result of evidence found it is impossible to doubt that Lumumba was a communist. These tactics leave one to assume that Mobutu’s censorship, the amount of time that has passed since the assassination, and even the continued racism of the western Europeans that he filmed, may have felt like deterrents to Peck.

There are also the financial barriers at play that might have discouraged Peck from doing an excavation like this documentary required. British Movietone News charged Peck a $3,000 per minute usage fee for their news coverage of Lumumba’s final capture by Mobutu’s cronies. This footage, as Peck names outright, is nearly impossible to afford for the average Congolese person who earns approximately $150 a year. Movietone News can act as gatekeeper, clinging to some of the little documentation available of Lumumba’s last public appearance: being loaded like cargo onto the back of a truck while his restraints are pulled tighter in an effort to humiliate him in front of his people. To put it as succinctly as our narrator, “memories of a murder are expensive.” The static and moving image—including who creates it, who has access to it, and who doesn’t have access to it—becomes particularly political when trying to find the human underneath a big, mythic figure or excavate the truth of an assassination in which many hands were involved.


The ongoing genocide impacting the Congolese people today is a nightmare emanating out of Congo’s history of western manipulation. Concentrated in the eastern region of the DRC, Rwanda and other African nations have received funding from the US and UK to back the armed groups and militias like M23 who are currently battling with the Congolese government’s military forces for regional political and economic control. There are also a variety of non-governmental investors who are financing the ongoing atrocities for resource extradition. At least 6 million people in Congo have suffered preventable deaths since the onset of the current atrocities in 1996—sparked by frustration against the economic decay of the Mobutu regime and Rwandan génocidaires fleeing consequences for the 1994 slaughter targeting the Tutsi people by hiding out in the DRC, the exact civilian death toll is unknown and likely higher since reliable data reporting stopped around 10 years ago. Widespread sexual violence and displacement have also escalated over the last three decades: tens of thousands of Congolese women have experienced sexual assault with no redress or justice, and upwards of 6 million people are internally displaced across the country.

This mass death that grips the Congo is haunted by Lumumba’s assassination, but it also finds its origins in other specters emerging from the brutality of King Leopold II and the human zoo-like display of Congolese people during the 1897 Exhibition. What the Congolese continue to experience today is not inevitable or natural, but rather the intentional undermining of their ability to self-determine their own futures for the sake of imperial and private corporate interests. So-called Israel, for example, is one of the top 10 exporters of cut and processed diamonds in the world even though there is virtually no diamond mining in the occupied Palestinian territories. Some of the most profitable mining licenses in the Congo are owned by Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, who has been previously sanctioned by the US for corrupt oil and mining dealings in the DRC. It is all connected, the capitalist interests at stake in the destabilization of the Congo are the same at stake in Palestine, Sudan, West Papau, Haiti, and beyond.


Within the last ten minutes of the film, the Prophet’s—Lumumba’s—end is laid bare by Peck and juxtaposed with footage of a cold Brussels during the holiday time. Alongside Christmas trees lit up around the royal La Grand-Place, these scenes of winter in Belgium correspond with the last months of Lumumba’s life (November through January) happening in some of the coldest months in the northern hemisphere. A refrain of Peck’s throughout the film, “Black holes. Images in my head,” is rooted in the reality that Lumumba’s death is heavily obscured and can only be told by piecing together an oral history of what is said to have happened. The absence of Lumumba in every sense echoes throughout the film, he roams and haunts because he was never laid to rest: Lumumba was not granted the dignity of a funeral, his remains were dug up, dismembered, and dissolved in acid. Those who murdered him cannot show us a body.

Instead of seeing images of death, which due to the clandestine nature of the assassination do not exist to the public’s knowledge, we are met with stills of the trees in the savannah and a nondescript home, and generic footage of a nighttime Belgian motorway to serve as stand-ins for us while Peck whispers a poetic telling of how “a giant fell that night.” The stock photo-like quality of these stills and footage only further emphasizes how little first-hand material Peck had to work with, and just how much mystery Lumumba’s death remains shrouded in. He can only infer exactly how Lumumba’s death took place and the final moments that Lumumba and his comrades Okito and Mpolo, all three assassinated in the bush by a firing squad, experienced. Peck’s account might be the closest the viewer will ever experience to the truth of this injustice.

Peck continues his act of bearing witness to a murder he’s never seen by conjuring up how he imagines two Belgian officers proceeded to discard of Lumumba’s corpse. The camera weaves through a crowd of Belgians in the early 1990s chatting and drinking at a formal black-tie event in a glamorously decorated hall, likely in the Grand-Place. Through his masterful use of stark audio and visual contrast in this film, Peck is able to end this tale by placing the assassination of Lumumba squarely at the feet of the Belgians and greater western Europe: those who get to enjoy the luxuries of champagne and gilded rooms with chandeliers while never having to fully reckon with the bloody horrors it took to get them their wealthy lifestyles. Patrice’s story, according to Peck, is not for their ears anyway.

A prophet can be defined, Peck declares, as someone who “foretells the future.” Juliana Lumumba, a Congolese journalist and Patrice Lumumba’s daughter, is the only person in the film who can speak directly to the way that Lumumba proved he was a prophet. He knew towards the end that he would die young, saying regularly to his wife “I know I’ll never have the chance to see my children growing up.” Hearing Juliana relay the prophecy Lumumba made, it leaves one evoking the company of other Black radicals like Malcolm X or Marielle Franco who continued to speak truth to power even though it put their lives in fatal danger. Lumumba was assassinated because his actions and his vision for the future—a liberated Congo, and a liberated African continent—were at odds with western nations like Belgium or the United States that depend on Congo experiencing endless instability and poverty so that the resource-rich nation can be exploited. They ‘needed’ him gone, as one Belgian who Peck interviewed said frankly, so that he would no longer present a danger to the west having economic dominance in the Congo.

Transnational corporations rely on the ability to have their wealth accumulation go unchecked. They bank on Congolese workers, including children, mining valuable resources like cobalt, coltan, gold, copper, diamonds, and zinc with little to no workers’ rights, safety, or protections. These tech products, like Apple, are built with an intentionally short life-span in order to encourage western consumers to be stuck in a cycle of continuously upgrading: buying new iPhones, new MacBooks, new iPads to aid an insidious, capitalist-minded business plan. To be in solidarity with Congo, as Kwame Nkurmah aptly nicknamed ‘the heart of Africa,’ will require from those of us residing in the west the reconfiguring of our lives away from endless consumerism. Abstaining from getting new products or buying them refurbished is an easy sacrifice to make in the face of whether or not to be complicit with genocide.

In Patrice Lumumba’s last letter, written to his wife from Thysville (now called Mbanza-Ngungu) prison days before his assassination, he carried a revolutionary sense of optimism about the future of the Congo. He believed sincerely that the Congolese people would one day live from external colonial exploitation and the internal corruption of government officials. Although this hope has remained unrealized, the growing protests and demonstrations across the Congo—particularly those of the last few weeks—show a righteous anger and an immense desire of the Congolese people to live free from Western political, economic, and military intervention. Yes, the Prophet is dead, but there is proof that his message remains.