Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death
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Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death

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. Sporting the long white beard of an Old Testament prophet or a vengeful Greek god, King Leopold serves as the film's diabolical villain, a tyrant who schemed his way into control over the Congo, promising the usual imperialist lies about bringing civilization, Christianity, and liberation, but delivering only death, torture, and brutal economic exploitation.

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.

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.

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