The title of Peter Bate’s BBC documentary Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death is nothing if not direct. Looking back to the Congo of the late 1800s, Bate connects the reign of King Leopold II of Belgium to the deaths of millions of blacks in the region by way of the rubber harvest that solidified the king’s reputation within the ranks of his family’s dynasty. The historically-minded film runs a little long and has a tendency of repeating but it intriguingly and symbolically puts Leopold on trial for orchestrating the devastation of the Congo for his country’s personal gain, cutting imaginary courtroom scenarios that pit a silent Leopold against his cohorts and victims around striking jungle photography, archival footage, handsomely-mounted recreations, taking-head interviews, and eerie chill-out music. This courtroom device creates an interesting distancing effect, reminding us over and over that, while Leopold may have escaped prosecution in his time because of his power, there’s no reason others shouldn’t have to answer for the man’s grand-scale gangsterism. No one asks for reparations (at least not in the form of jail time), just a simple acknowledgement of blame. For many of Bate’s interviewees, it’s obvious that Leopold’s crimes shouldn’t be written off as products of their time and that the mythologization of those crimes in museums should be exposed for the justifications that they are. In the end, it’s not Leopold that’s even on trial so much as Belgium. This is why the images of Leopold statues littered across the country and the museums that have whited-out the nation’s shameful black abuses are so casually arresting—they evoke the ignorance of a country that would rather look up to its ugly past than down.
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