Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2004
Distributor: ArtMattan/Facets Video
Origin: England/Belgium/Democratic Republic of Congo
Running Time: 84 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 15+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Boma-Tervuren, King Leopold’s Ghost, Namibian Genocide & The Second Reich, Preying Missionaries, Cold Case Hammerskjold, Hate Crimes in the Heartland
-This review contains graphic content given the subject matter of King Leopold II and the Congolese Genocide.
-This documentary was actually condemned by the Belgian government when it exposed the horrors of King Leopold II.
-Four languages are spoken in this film. Most of it is in English, but there are multiple cases of dialogue in French, Dutch (Flemish dialect), and Lingala.
-Director Peter Bate has also lent his skills in What Sank the Mary Rose?, Station X, and Franklin’s Lost Expedition. Also, he has produced an episode of Nova back in 1999.
-Historian Elikia M’Bokolo is interviewed in this documentary as well as the main person traveling around in this film. He’s from Kinshasa, DRC, graduated from Sorbonne University, was also featured in the documentary Slavery Routes, and has written the book “Afrique Noire, Hitoire et Civilisations”.
History has been littered with people committing several atrocities against others for several generations. Even someone who isn’t well-versed in that subject can name some absolute devils who were genocidal maniacs during their lifetimes. There are infamous examples that are talked about to this day to make sure no one repeats their horrific actions. Adolf Hitler would be an obvious one. Elementary school students even learn about the Holocaust and all the horrors that the dictator was responsible for as people should learn about how terrible the Nazi regime was. There’s Josef Stalin who was also responsible for killing millions during his reign of the Soviet Union. Pol Pot is someone that gets taught in schools when it came to the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and how innocent people was slaughtered for daring to practice religions or for not being of the Khmer ethnic group. Those and other examples have been taught as well as these genocidaires being rightfully demonized for their actions. It’s important to learn about these examples which I won’t dispute. With that being said, there are some genocidal criminals who aren’t mentioned in schools or even praised by certain people which is a tragedy in and of itself. One of those people was King Leopold II of Belgium. While he may be known as the Builder King in his home country, ask anyone who knows about African history (more so if you meet someone who’s Congolese), and they’ll tell you that he was the Butcher of the Congo. Why isn’t this colonizing king in the same conversations as infamous devils who’ve killed several people? Thankfully, there have been some documentaries that have addressed the atrocities in the Congo as more information has come to light.
This BBC-produced film was one of them.
Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death documents the little-known Congolese Genocide that occurred in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The continent of Africa became divided by European powers during the Berlin Conference where those countries became colonized against their will since no African was invited to that hellish conference. The Kingdom of Kongo was separated in multiple ways and a good chunk of it was taken over by King Leopold to make the Congo Free State right in the dead center of Africa (nowadays, it’s what we call the DRC). It wasn’t just Belgian territory that was stolen, but it became the king’s personal labor camp with enslaved Congolese people. Why was he after that part of Africa? The Congo was (and still is to this day) loaded with minerals and natural resources. One major resource that was sought after at the time was rubber since bicycles and the tire industry was new, yet extremely booming businesses, so Leopold wanted a giant stake in that market among others. He and his royal forces used askaris, missionaries, and slave drivers to make sure they had their way with that Central African nation. They indoctrinated, abused, raped, amputated, starved out, and murdered roughly half the population of the then-Congo Free State at the time, but most of the world didn’t know it was going on. It wasn’t until some outside sources as well as disillusioned European workers found out about the horrors of Leopold’s reign and decided to spread the word about it. The documentary utilized re-enactments, archived letters, as well as visiting landmarks that were directly or indirectly related to this under-reported event.
My readers shouldn’t be surprised that I would cover a documentary like this, but besides all of those expectations from those who know about my catalog of work, this was still an eye-opener. I certainly learned new things from watching this particular film. The production did some good things. There was a mix of interviews, archived photos, letters, locales associated with the Congolese Genocide, and even some historical re-enactments. One recurring dramatization was a courtroom with King Leopold in a glass case (that actor looked so much like that tyrant it was scary) with people both defending and chastising him in court. There was one really nice touch was having someone playing a Congolese survivor who testified against Leopold in Lingala and I thought it was a very effective way to pull that off. There was a diverse amount of interviewees with historians from multiple countries. One of them was Elikia M’Bokolo who travels to different cities in Belgium, Liverpool, England, and the DRC. It’s like he traveled to all these places for accuracy while also hearing the voices of those who lived there. The two scenes with him that really caught my eye were the scenes in the DRC as well as a brief part where he goes to a chocolate shop in Belgium. When he interviews some Congolese people right outside a defaced statue of Leopold, some of them didn’t know about that king’s horrific history as it was downplayed and claimed he brought “civilization” to the nation which was a tragedy watching that as it showed the whitewashing of Leopold’s actions. The scene with the chocolate store was impactful and I’m glad they brought up a disturbing fact about one of their famous candies. You see, Belgium has a renowned chocolatier industry and is world-famous for that type of craftsmanship with their candy. Unfortunately, one of their biggest chocolate candies is chocolate hands. One of Leopold’s signature punishments was chopping off the hands of the Congolese if they didn’t meet the rubber quotas. Notice how most of those “hands” are of the milk and dark chocolate variety. Do the math and let those implications sink in. Those chocolate hands are STILL sold to this day in that country. Even Leopold’s statues were still up and some of them didn’t go down until the George Floyd protests that happened worldwide over the summer of 2020. One thing I learned about was the existence of E. D. Morel and John Harris. The former actually made articles criticizing Leopold’s genocide and broke the story out to so many people despite the backlash. That was a bit of a historical twist since his home city of Liverpool was involved in the slave trade with their ports over a century prior. Harris was a former missionary who was disgusted by the treatment of the natives and set up a hospital for them to treat their wounds. This documentary doesn’t hold back in describing the brutality of Leopold’s colonization of the Congo.
It’s really been a long time coming when I would actually review something involving the Congolese Genocide, and it felt important to talk about this in detail even in the context of a film review. I first heard about Leopold II only a few years ago and I certainly didn’t learn about him in school all the way from elementary to even the university level even though I had to take two history courses as gen eds during my tenure as a student. As some of you may or may not know by now, I took a DNA test just a couple of years ago and found out that one of the biggest African ethnic samples I got was Congolese, so I saw these atrocities in a new light. Sure, I’m considered to be biracial given that I have a white dad, but my maternal side of the family descended from African-American slaves and I even wondered if the people still on the continent were distant relatives of mine that became afflicted by Leopold’s reign of terror. Anyone who calls me biased in that regard is missing the point. To paraphrase Dave Chappelle in his 8:46 stand-up special, how is it that someone can kill several million people (more on that later) and not feel like they were going to get the wrath of God on them? It sickens me with how he got away with genocide and how people don’t care about that blight in history. I swear there are people who believe that it didn’t count as a genocide because Black people died which is beyond fallacious. Doing my own independent research even several months prior to watching this documentary was so disheartening with how Christianity was weaponized against the victims, how there were biracial babies that were products of the colonizers raping the Congolese women as well as being kidnapped, or how hundreds of them were taken as part of a human zoo in Belgium (Boma-Tervuren, The Journey really gets into detail about that horrific event and it’s an extra on this DVD). Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death makes the argument that the modern-day DRC is still exploited despite that genocidal monarch being dead for over a century now and it’s certainly true. Several of those minerals and resources are still there and the Congolese aren’t getting a fair market value. Want to know what is a top mineral right now? Cobalt. Do you own a smartphone or tablet? Chances are there’s some Congolese cobalt in it. Once again, the people in the country are shortchanged in that regard. It doesn’t just have to be just gold, diamonds, rubber, or cobalt. Even parts of the culture are infringed upon. Since the DRC has five official languages and one of them is Swahili (See where I’m going with this?), Mickey Mouse even had to get a piece of the Congolese pie when they trademarked a very common phrase involving a certain “problem-free philosophy”, so they can sue anyone who uses it the wrong way in their eyes. How much is really different compared to the 19th or early 20th century when it comes to exploiting the Congo let alone Africa? These facts only made this doc more timeless to watch.
Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death does have some flaws that need to be addressed. While the courtroom scenes were powerful in its presentation, I do think that some of the reenactments didn’t hit the viewer as hard. The acting was good, but some parts were a tiny bit cheesy, so I can’t lie to you. The Liverpool scenes did have a dualistic edge to them. While I did appreciate how there were people who wanted to expose Leopold for his crimes back then and were sincere about it, part of the presentation did skirt towards a white savior complex. Since this was made by a British director, I could see some of that bias creep in that regard (Peter Bate, you do know the British Crown did some rampant colonization as well, right?). I wasn’t a fan of one of the interviewees who made comparisons with the Congolese Genocide to the plight of Native Americans when she specifically called them “Native American Indians”. That wasn’t called for and she should really know better than to call them that. While the level of detail of the Congolese Genocide was informative as well as sobering, I do feel that they downplayed parts of the genocide. They used the 10 million number when it’s actually closer to 15 million when it came to how many people died under Leopold’s rule. Back then, it was half of the Congo’s population at the time which was omitted in this documentary. Keep in mind that the capital of Kinshasa currently has approximately 11 million people living in that city (side note: it’s the 3rd most populated African city after Lagos and Cairo respectively). There’s a major depressing aspect with Belgium never owning up to Leopold’s crimes or how the king got off WAY too soft when his punishment was losing control of the country while the Belgian government would take it over until the 1960s. Trust me, don’t watch this if you’re depressed because they don’t play when it comes to describing the horrors that affected the country.
This was a documentary I needed to see and I think there was a lot of truth in it. Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death was a very sobering look at this forgotten hellish historical event and more people should know about it. Most of the research was quite strong and the interviews were powerful. There was good production more often than not and the figures in this film did a great job of handling this sensitive issue. However, parts of it were downplayed and I wasn’t a fan of how some things were portrayed. The Congolese Genocide should be mentioned in schools and in mainstream history books and it’s a giant tragedy that I didn’t know about this until after I graduated college regardless of whether I was of Congolese descent or not. I would still recommend this documentary even with some of its issues.
KOBOSANA TE (“NEVER FORGET” in Lingala)!
Adjustable Point System:
Add 1 point if you like historical documentaries with an edge.
Subtract 1 point if you don’t like historical re-enactment scenes.
Subtract 1-3 points if you feel really uncomfortable learning about horrific parts of history.
-Very good production
-Diverse range of interviews and interview styles
-Really goes in on Leopold’s documented cruelty
-Slight white savior undertones in the Liverpool scenes/narrative
-There is some downplaying occasionally
-Some re-enactments didn’t hit the mark
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: Congo: White King, Red Rubber, White Death would be better suited for older teens and up. The level of depravity is very disheartening with the pictures of amputated Congolese. There are discussions of the Belgians raping the women, castrating the men before auctioning off their body parts, punishing them with firing squads, and one case mentions how a pregnant woman was impaled by one of the colonizers. The fact that it’s about the Congolese Genocide alone makes this a very heavy watch for many. The worst parts of colonialism, slavery, and overall savagery against the African populace are on full display.
All videos and photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Congo: White King, Red Rubber, Black Death is property of ArtMattan and Facets Video. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of ArtMattan and Facets Video.