CONGO: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death
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Peter Bate's documentary "Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death" veritably quakes with righteous anger and indignation as it lays down a vitriolic condemnation of Leopold II, a turn-of-the-century Belgian monarch who treated the Congo as his own personal fiefdom during a horrifying reign of genocidal terror.

In this documentary an actor playing King Leopold sits stoically and listens to charges of genocide as the documentary weaves in historical fact, photographs and a very interesting story.

The Congo had the misfortune to be rich in rubber, and as the increasing popularity of bicycles and cars resulted in a rubber boom, the Belgian monarch resorted to barbaric means to increase production, including punitive mutilation and murder. Eventually news of his barbarism became known to the public through the crusading work of a Liverpool journalist and his missionary allies, but as is often the case, history has an unfortunate way of erasing, hiding, or just plain ignoring painful truths. It was several years before countries realized that they two had been duped in helping Leopold achieve his purely power driven goals.

Bate's film seems intended to reverse that tendency by holding Leopold II accountable for genocide on a historical scale, but its understandable rage doesn't always benefit the material. Regrettably, Bate uses many of the tools of tabloid television in making his case, including heavy-handed reenactments, an ominous, sinister score, and overly dramatic narration delivered in a voice shaking with outrage. The brutality Bate uncovers is often viscerally powerful and disturbing, but the film might have been better served by a more dispassionate approach. The horrific facts of Leopold II's rape of the Congo speak eloquently for themselves: They don't require Bate's heavy-handed tactics to lend them additional punch.

It's not easy to turn historical events with no video footage available into an interesting documentary. The producers do a superb job by a utilizing the unique technique of mixing current interviews of historians with the readings of the letters of Belgian missionaries.

What is just as amazing as the destruction and horror King Leopold II single handedly led, is the fact that he is today considered a national hero. This film helps us to see that he should instead be regarded as a precursor to Hitler. As they say, history is written by the victors.


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