Raising Of Leopold's Statue In Drc Sparks Controversy In Africa And New Interest In African Film Festival

February 2007

by Elombe Brath

When the BBC aired a broadcast which reported that the statue of the infamous Belgian King Leopold II had been ordered to, both literally and figuratively, dragged out the mothballs by Christophe Muzungu, the Minister of Culture of the Democratic Republic of Congo, and have the 19th century monument of the monarch raised in Kinshasa, the country's capital, all hell broke loose. Viewers were alarmed that such a thing could happen in today's DRC, which is struggling to rehabilitate its history as a victim of Belgium's brutal colonization period and its subsequent neocolonial dictatorship under Mobutu, who has been compared by many to have ruled as if he wanted to be an African Leopold.

This issue caused many Congolese, as well as other African people around the world, to reminisce about the cruel European colonial domination Africans had been forced to endure since the conclusion of the Berlin Conference of November 1884-February 1885 and the paradoxical negative symbolic gesture of once again raising a monument in the likeness of Leopold II, the infamous 19th century brutal monarch who wantonly butchered his African subjects. Instead of keeping the sculpture covered in the basement of the nation's archives or creating a National Museum of Historical Horrors where it could be displayed as a reminder to educate the broad masses of Congolese what the world had allowed to aggravate their suffering on the alter of white supremacist racism, Leopold was given an undue measure of respect. To exhibit the statue of the most despiteous representative of European colonization in Kinshasa, alongside the city where statues of former Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba and former President Laurent Kabila - both martyred by imperialists and racists who sought to prevent their country's independence and people's right to self-determine the Congo's liberation - was dispiriting.

When I rushed down to the DRC's Mission to the United Nations, Ambassador Atoki Ileka, to enquire whether the report true or not, he told me that it was but that when President Joseph Kabila, who has been busily engaged in trying to protect his country's territorial integrity, was appraised of the situation, he rescinded Muzungu's edict and ordered the controversial offensive statue to be returned to storage. I was relieved, but, like many others, still disturbed.

But the issue surrounding what historical role does Leopold represent in the Congo's interest, believe it or not, has also been raised again. In spite of the fact that Leopold's heinous 23-year long oppressive, genocidal and exploitive rule of the Congolese people had been known for years, his sheer brutality finally became so outrageous that it drew the outrage of his European allies, some folks still wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt of Christian charity. Nonetheless, the overwhelming knowledgeable people of the world have concluded that the Belgian king's exploits could no longer be tolerated because, ironically, they were embarrassing European's claims to be the paradigms of western civilization. Thus, by the Leopold was forced to give up his self-proclaimed "Congo Free State" and turn over his privatized huge African territory which was 80 times larger than Belgium (which then became the infamous Belgian Congo in 1908), he had enriched himself by over $10 million while causing – and costing - the lives of more than 10 million Congolese people, with thousands being maimed by having their hands cut off because they didn't produce enough rubber to match the mad king's quota demands.

It is for all of these reasons that the recent controversy and outrage has also sparked a new interest in reviewing the historic documentary "Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death", which was also a BBC documentary produced by Peter Bates that made its U.S. premiere this past December 4th, during the 2004 African Diaspora Film Festival, held annually by Reinaldo Barroso-Spech and Diarah N'Daw Speck's production company ArtMattan. The film's mind-blowing presentation helped spur the rescheduling of the "highlights of the best of the cinema offerings" from November 26th to December 12th, 2004 season to begin Friday evening of Friday 11, 2005 and run until Thursday, February 17th. As a result, it is very timely that one of the films that is rescheduled to be shown is "Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death", which will be screened this Sunday, February 13th – ironically the 44th anniversary of the announcement of the assassination of Patrice Lumumba - at 4:30 PM at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, at Lafayette Avenue and Ashland Street in downtown Brooklyn.

What initiated the outrage against Minister Mzungu's arbitrary decision to once again publicly display the monument of the man whose monstrous behavior actually made his fellow European colonialists ashamed of their association by presumably giving a bad name to alleged western civilization, was the fact that it is impossible for any sane person to try to diminish the mad Belgian king's cruel crimes against humanity in his decimation of the Congolese forcibly in his employ for nearly a quarter of century rule. Indeed, Mark Twain, in his classic "King Leopold's Soliloquy", specifically denounced the U.S. as the "godfather of the Congo graveyard" because of its outright support to Leopold's bloody reign, which covered the administrations of five U.S. Presidents: Chester B. Arthur (21st president), 1881-85; Grover Cleveland (22nd and 24th), 1885-85 and 1893-97; Benjamin Harrison (23rd), 1889-1893; William McKinley (25th) 1897-1901; and Theodore Roosevelt (26th), 1901-1909.

The importance of the film "Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death" to the current discussions and debates regarding the DRC today are not just by chance or happenstance. Neither is it just a major added feature of the African Diaspora Film Festival; nor is the Leopold biopic's significance an exception but the rule. While "White King, Red Blood, Black Death" is indeed an important attraction, the entire festival is replete with great film features of various types, genre and styles. From Friday, February 11th through Thursday, February 17th, movies from the Pan-African world will be shown throughout the day depicting the everyday life of African people interfacing with each other or with other peoples from or in other localities around the globe. Whether a dramatic 35 millimeter feature like "Denying Brazil" or the BETA "African Blood and Afro-Argentines", focusing on the racial situation in South America's largest Black country and its major nation which has purged its Black population, respectively, viewers will get a chance to see two Latin American nations with a similar problems regarding race in two widely different demographics.

There are also two films featuring different expressions of Black womanhood, "Silence, In Search of Black Female Sexuality" or "Raise Your Voice: Sweet Honey in the Rock"; or a children friendly cartoon like the ever popular "Kirikou and the Sorceress"; or other features like "Au Pair Chocolat", "Gulpiili: One Red Blood", "How to Conquer America", or any of the other four films that will fill out the six day showcase. All are beautiful, intriguing and entertaining, although with different tastes. "Congo" will also be repeated on Monday, February 14th, and the schedules and information concerned with all the movies to be screened can be obtained by calling (212) 864-1760 or going to the website at http://www.NYADFF.org.