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DC/DOX 2024: 'Soundtrack to a Coup d'État' Bridges Political Conspiracy and Jazz

Updated: Jun 24

This review is part of my ongoing coverage of DC/DOX film festival. See also: Hollywoodgate and Secret Mall Apartment.

Johan Grimonprez’s Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat is an audiovisual feat. The 2.5-hour documentary was screened for free at the National Gallery of Art in a softly-lit, ovular viewing room lined with red velvet chairs. Despite its already late start (technical issues), and extensive pre-film introduction by Grimonprez, I would have sat in that theater for an additional hour in anticipation of its spectacular education.

Before I dive in, I must note something that bothers me and likely many others: the standard American curriculum about Africa is abysmal. Perhaps students got a little bit of Roman-era Egypt and the basic rundown on the Nile, or a passing mention of Nelson Mandela when discussing domestic civil rights developments (“See? Our segregation wasn't as bad as South Africa's!”), but if you ask most Americans to name or point out African countries on a map, you’d be severely disappointed.

If not for having spent some time in France in high school, I would have been wildly misinformed about the European colonization of Africa and its contemporary ramifications up until attending a liberal arts university. I learned about the French presence in Algeria and Senegal (although, mainly through my peers rather than the curriculum), and slowly things came into focus. In college, I began to take geography classes to fill the gaps in my knowledge.  

I regret that there is still quite a lot I don’t know, and even in my reading, I struggle to keep some pieces of information straight. As it turns out, it was director Grimonprez's own white guilt – particularly as a Belgian – that inspired him to address one of the great atrocities of post-independence Africa via documentary: the coup of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by colluding CIA and Belgian forces. Congolese Prime Minister Patrice Lumumba never stood a chance.

Aside from being one of the densest (complimentary) and most informative documentaries I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching, it is also one of the most well-edited. Essentially, Grimonprez shapes the foreign political conspiracy with the domestic cultural force of the time – jazz. The U.S., in an effort to forge greater ties between itself and the slew of newly independent African nations who joined the United Nations in 1960, sent “jazz ambassadors” to perform abroad and connect with liberated Black audiences. Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, among many, many others, provide the soundtrack and backdrop for the CIA’s diabolical plan of Black disempowerment. These forces – with frequent callbacks to Dizzy Gillespie’s idealistic presidential run, which projected an all-Black cabinet and a proposal to turn the White House into the "Blues House" – come to a head to create an environment of musical mayhem.

It’s difficult to summarize the movie due to the volume of its content (I’d recommend Googling “Congo Crisis” if you need a quick overview), but its major themes include the emerging globalization movement, the “ground zero” of Americans dealing with the African continent (which Grimonprez eloquently described as a “smothering of hope”), and the use of Black Americans as instruments of peace abroad while they were not even treated as equals at home. The U.S., until that point, had exercised a casual soft power in the European-dominated UN that the emergence of independent African states was likely to threaten. 

Grimonprez admitted that the source of his curiosity in exploring the topic was not the D.R.C. itself, but the absence of its representation during a key moment in UN history: Nikita Khrushchev’s “we will bury you” speech. While watching back archival footage, Grimonprez discovered that Premier Khrushchev was not, as commonly believed, referring to burying the West – he was referring to burying colonialism. Despite the fat red rat’s (Khrushchev’s nickname, courtesy of Soviet-era rebel Hungarians) many faults, including his vehement dislike of jazz, he became a leader for newly independent states amidst the Cold War. The U.S. attempted to temper Soviet power in the Eisenhower era by inviting him to Hollywood and Camp David in 1959, where the two nations issued a joint agreement for nuclear disarmament, but – and here’s the kicker – the film notes that this public endorsement coincided with a $1.7 billion drop in the U.S. stock market. 

The film is a little manipulative in its implication of blatant cause and effect, but the statistic provides some additional context for Eisenhower’s late-term international meddling; many prominent U.S. politicians had stakes in the D.R.C’.s uranium mines, and in order to maintain control over the minerals used to make nuclear weapons, the CIA prioritized getting someone they could trust – Moïse Tshombe, and when that didn't work out, future autocrat Mobotu Sese Seko – into power. Grimonprez twists the knife by abruptly interrupting the historical retelling with recent commercials for coltan-powered Tesla and Apple products.

I was aware of Belgium’s monarchy having a terrible reputation for how it ruled its colonies in the first half of the 20th century, but I knew very little about post-Lumumba mercenary activity in the country. Greedy Europeans and cash-strapped locals arrived in the Tshombe era to kill, on commission (sometimes from the pockets of the CIA), for four years. The film’s most obvious cultural contrast is on display when one of the mercenaries testifies that it was “good work.” He may be a murderer, but he is actually quite refined because, he explains, he listens to a lot of classical music at the Goethe-Institut.

Nina Simone plays the intro to Runnerman again. Elites are deplorable, jazz is cool. The legacy of violence has devastated the D.R.C. as prospectors race to extract its mineral wealth and ship it off to the West to this day.

It’s an infuriating movie, but an essential one. Grimonprez describes his work on his website as questioning “our contemporary sublime.” In the Q&A, he denounced the privatization of war, and called what has happened in the U.S. a “corporate coup d’état.” Audience participants inquired about Grimonprez’s goal with the movie and how religion might’ve factored into the locals' resistance. The panel of worldly scholars warned of the government's power to co-opt culture in furthering their own goals, and encouraged artists – wielding inherent political power – to remain vigilant. 

Soundtrack to a Coup d’État was first screened at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Cinematic Innovation. The film was acquired by Kino Lorber but has not yet set a release date.



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