Political biographies rarely come off particularly well when dramatized (as opposed to being given documentary treatment). There are notable exceptions, to be sure–“All the King’s Men” (1949) remains a fine distillation of Huey Long’s career, though the names were changed and Robert Penn Warren had as much to do with its success as Robert Rossen or Broderick Crawford, and TNT has done sone decent long-form TV pieces of late–but when Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” is the best recent big-screen example of the genre, you know that things aren’t in a great state. So Raoul Peck’s “Lumumba” is a pleasant surprise. The Haitian writer-director’s account of the brief, ill-fated career of the first premier of the newly-independent Belgian Congo isn’t perfect. His obvious admiration for his subject, whom he had earlier treated in a 1991 documentary subtitled “Death of a Prophet,” leads Peck to portray Lumumba as an unblemished hero (though a difficult, often truculent man), and a feature running-time of two hours simply doesn’t allow for as much nuance and detail as one might wish in the presentation of the political, social and economic context. But the picture is nonetheless vibrant and alive, fascinating and realistic; and one can easily overlook its minor blemishes in view of its major strengths.

The film begins with a harrowing sequence, shot in ominous shadows, of a pair of white men systematically dismembering and disposing of some bloodied corpses; though the identities of the slain men won’t be revealed until the story closes, it’s hardly surprising that one of them is Lumumba, to whose life the narrative abruptly cuts. We see him as a beer salesman drawn without much fuss into politics, becoming leader of a party agitating for the Congo’s liberation during the period of African de-colonialization. Though jailed and mistreated by the colonial authorities, he’s sufficiently important to be given a role in a European conference to determine the form an independent state will take, and enters into a coalition with another party leader, the more phlegmatic Joseph Kasavubu, in which the latter assumes the presidency and Lumumba the premiership. It quickly becomes clear, however, how fragile the new arrangement is; while Kasavubu stresses moderation and compromise, Lumumba remains the principled rabble-rouser, soon viewed as a danger by the Belgians and the Americans, who are clearly determined to maintain indirect control over the country as a part of their Cold War strategy. Ultimately these outside forces take advantage of the tribal divisions and personal ambitions within the ruling factions to bring down the government, remove Lumumba from the scene, and install Joseph Mobutu, an erstwhile ally now turned kingmaker-general, as a pro-western dictator. (Mobutu ruled the Congo–its name changed to Zaire–for nearly four decades until forced from power by Laurent Kabila’s rebels in 1997. Kabila, of course, was himself assassinated early this year and succeeded by his son.)

In Peck’s depiction of this unhappy episode, Lumumba was a prophetic voice stilled by the ever- potent forces of imperialism, a man of principle and integrity laid low by the Machiavellian powers he perceived but could not overcome. Portrayed in this fashion, he might have become little more than a plaster saint were it not for the controlled yet charismatic performance of Eriq Ebouaney, who invests the character with a sense of purpose and nobility while also showing us his prickly, self-satisfied side; it’s a turn that easily transcends any limitations in the script. Mala Kotto provides a marvelous contrast as the reticent, cautious and deceptively gentle Kasavubu. And there’s a touch of the young Clarence Williams III in Alex Descas’ stern, impassive Mobutu. The surrounding characters, needless to say, aren’t nearly as well fleshed out, and there’s more than a hint of the obvious to many of them; but the trio at the center of things maintain our interest.

“Lumumba” was shot–very effectively by Bernard Lutic–on location in Africa and Belgium, although strife in the Congo made it necessary to use Zimbabwe and Mozambique as stand-ins. Though clearly modestly budgeted and lacking a truly epic scale, it manages a convincingly period feel, and in a few sequences achieves a truly haunting look.

Patrice Lumumba is now looked upon as an early hero of the African liberation movement, and after years of obscurity his reputation as an important figure has been restored. Peck’s film–as well as his decade-old documentary–are significant contributions to the work of recovery, but “Lumumba” is too good to be judged merely as a useful history lesson. It’s a compelling, thought-provoking film in its own right, and it boasts a very impressive lead performance. Seeing it shouldn’t be taken as some sort of educational chore. Though informative, it also happens to be smashing good drama.