A stunning indictment of Belgium’s brutal colonization of the Congo in the late 19th century, Brit documaker Peter Bate’s “White King, Red Rubber, Black Death” illustrates how European exploitation in Africa caused irreparable damage to the continent. Blending archival evidence, talking heads experts and theatrical dramatizations, pic aired in a shorter 52-minute version on classy Euro webs in 2004 and is now popping up in its full-length feature form at fests on the other side of the Atlantic, where it will deliver less of a shock than it must have to complacent Belgian couch potatoes.
Even the coolest reading of history places King Leopold II of Belgium among the elite of bad men, but the royal mess he made of the Congo starting in 1885 was extraordinary even by the horrific standards set by Europe’s colonial period in Africa. As Oxford historian Maria Misra makes clear, the king — a man of insecurities in the shadow of his strong father, Leopold I — felt the desperate need to catch up with the major European powers’ acquisitions of African territory.
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Thus, the Congo came under Belgian control simply because it was available. Explorer Henry Stanley’s trek across the African interior had confirmed the land was accessible, but Leopold’s plunge into colony-building was nonetheless disastrous until Scot John Dunlop invented the pneumatic tire and launched a global demand for rubber — Congo’s richest resource.
The Congo was turned into a massive labor camp in which villages were destroyed if locals failed to work for the invading entrepreneurs. The Congo saw its population reduced by half over 40 years, with some regions’ numbers even as high as 80% eradication.
The extent of Leopold’s bloody project was kept secret until a shipping clerk named Edmund Dene Morel spotted irregularities in import-export documents that created the false impression that more goods were being sent from Belgium to the Congo than the other way around. By 1905, Morel was on a muck-raking mission to reveal the ongoing bloodbath, which novelist Joseph Conrad vividly captured in his novel, “Heart of Darkness.” Morel, docu argues, should be remembered as the 20th century’s first great human rights activist.
Perhaps most chilling in Bate’s report is how vestiges of Leopold’s reign of terror remain quite visible in Belgium today — from numerous statues glorifying the heavily-bearded leader, to images of lavish buildings built with the cash derived from the Congo trade, to little chocolates in the form of hands, a reminder of the severing of hands that was policy among Leopold’s henchmen.
Least effective are cutaways to a staged “trial” of the king (played imperiously and silently by actor Elie Larson) that drags pic into the realm of standard educational history pics. Nick Fraser’s commanding narration lends real punch to Bate’s tough-minded text.