From 1885 until a year before his 1909 death, Belgium’s King Leopold II ruled the Congo Free State as his personal fiefdom, enslaving the region’s inhabitants for the mass production of rubber. The BBC-produced documentary Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death recounts the history of this brutal arrangement, which led to the deaths of unknown millions of Congolese. A formal hodgepodge, Congo suffers from abrasive voice-over narration, stilted re-enactments, and an awkward courtroom conceit, but gets by on its shocking material—Belgian atrocities cataloged here include the cutting off of workers’ hands and the taking of family members as hostages. Director Peter Bate coolly juxtaposes these accounts of human misery with views of opulent present-day Brussels (where statues of Leopold still stand), protesting against the erasure of history (the film has been denounced by the current Belgian government). As for the Congolese, they continue to die: Some 4 million have perished since 1996 in the country’s civil wars.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on October 11, 2005