Peck’s Portrayal of Racism through Linguistics
What I found most enthralling about Peck’s film Lumumba is the way he entwined the concepts of racism and colonialism. In the case of most African nations, blatant racism and the “white is supreme” mentality are always present, but often this racism is depicted in an extreme way in order to be persuasive through atrocity. We know white imperialists to be violent, destructive, and all-in-all a malignant tumor for the sanctity of a nation’s cultural/social standing. This stereotypical portrayal of racism, although horrifingly accurate, also affects society’s view of racism to only associate the concept with the extremities of racism. This can result in a blindness towards subtler instances of racism because these smaller instances do not fall under our grander societal definition. Peck utilizes smaller instances of racism under the umbrella of colonialism to bring a more refined and relevant discussion of racism into his film.
The character of Patrice Lumumba seems to be the expediter of this discussion of racism. Lumumba’s independence speech certainly addressed this topic head-on:
“Who will ever forget that the black man was addressed as “tu”, not because he was a friend, but because the polite “vous” was reserved for the white man?”
For anyone who hasn’t taken a language class, the significance of such a distinction between “vous” and “tu” is the difference between speaking to your boss and speaking to a child. He calls on this subtlety to reinforce his campaign of the need for Congolese to unite and form a clear picture of their human dignity for the rest of the world. His tone is assertive to portray the rigidity of his argument, and he poses his question rhetorically to imply that it should simply be common sense. Lumumba confronts racism as an active moral battle rather than taking what he gets (from the Belgian forces) as a political leader.
Lumumba has another distinct confrontation with racism when he dismisses the general of the force publique from his position and the country itself. Lumumba sternly demands to be referred to as “Excellency”, which he validly points out is the only appropriate way for a general to address a nation’s leader. Defensively, the general points out that he does not take Lumumba’s position seriously due to the political state of the nation; Lumumba appropriately dismisses him from the country. It is the subtlety and the way that the Belgian colonialists “justify” their reasoning that Lumumba responds with a firm hand. Lumumba understands that these subtle remarks stem from the same foundational pool of racist mentality and therefore need to be treated for what they really are instead of being left to be swept under the rug.
For, it is these same subtleties and these word choices that were used in the propaganda used by Western leaders to not only justify their intrusion in the newly independent Congo, but also to enable them to murder a prime minister with minimal repercussion.