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Man with rumpled hair gestures as he speaks into a microphone from a podium at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival

“Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat”: Political Machinations in the Congo

Writer-director Johan Grimonprez talks about his film “Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat” following its premiere January 22 at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival. (Photo by Stephen Lovekin/Shutterstock for Sundance Film Festival)

By Vanessa Zimmer

Soundtrack to a Coup d’Etat unravels the threads of the complex story of the struggle for independence in mid-20th century Congo — framing it with the African American jazz music of the time and the global politics of the Cold War.

The film, which screened January 22 in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival, traces the rise (and aftermath) of a campaign in the Congo to separate itself from its Belgian colonizers. Weaving American jazz music into the mix as a sort of soundtrack draws in comparisons to the civil rights struggles of the United States, the rhythmic beats and lyrics expressing some of the same injustices. Among the jazz music featured is that of luminaries such as Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Max Roach, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie.

The documentary paints U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower as a critic of Congolese activist Patrice Lumumba, and the CIA as a powerful organization capable of assassination as a way of resolving political situations abroad.

The Congo, rich with uranium and other valuable minerals used in electronics and such, attracted the attention of the United States and other world powers. “You see, I am part of the problem,” says writer-director Johan Grimonprez, pulling his phone from his pocket in the Q&A following the screening.

Grimonprez (Double Take, which explored the Cold War and the films of Alfred Hitchcock, 2010 Sundance Film Festival) claims the United States used Louis Armstrong as a jazz ambassador to distract attention from U.S. involvement in the Congo, and to cultivate the admiration of the Congolese. Armstrong was unaware, says Grimonprez, that he was being sent to the Congo as a “Trojan horse.”

To see more from the 2024 Festival, click here.