The Last King of Scotland
Date: Saturday, February 24 @ 09:20:42 UTC
By Rootsie, rootsie.com
February 24, 2007
I made a bad mistake. I went to see The Last King of Scotland. I mean I really should have known: a Hollywood movie about Idi Amin. I don't know what I expected. I guess I was taken in by all the media-hype about Forrest Whittaker's performance. Two nights before the Oscars, I was swept into the frenzy, myself and a packed theater in a white white white Vermont town.
We were treated to what the movie said was a story "based on actual events." As the horror unfolded, as the young and stupid and careless Scottish doctor becomes part of Amin's inner circle and slowly realizes Amin's insanity and his own terrible complicity, I kept thinking, "Could this guy have really existed? He must have, because who would have the cojones to concoct him? I mean, wasn't what Amin did all on his own bad enough without inventing a sidekick who spurred the madman on to fictional atrocities?"
Alas, this is Hollywood, folks, and the white West. You can't present Africa without some white dude on-board to interpret. But he didn't just interpret, this fictional Scottish doctor. No. He fictionally slept with Amin's wife, and thus inadvertently caused her hideous fictional murder, but inadvertently, innocently, the Innocents Abroad, you know. By the time we get to Entebbe airport, we are really in la la land. An ad hoc torture/ crucifixion/Lakota Sundance in the duty-free shop? Twenty feet away from the Israeli hostages? Where were the news crews? At the ending credits I incredulously muttered "I think I hated that movie," meeting with hostile looks from nearby movie-goers. I was too stunned to know how I felt in the moment. The lobby was all abuzz about the "intensity" of the film, and Whittaker's "amazing" performance.
My partner said in misery, "This is the picture of Africa they always have in their minds." Noble white missionary/doctors, suffering natives, beautiful landscape though, such a waste, such a shame...
We went home and asked Jeeves, and sure enough, there was no such Scot.
Apart from a couple of sinister Brits and Amin's mention of belonging to the King's Rifles in Uganda, viewers are given little indication that in the actual person of Idi Amin it is possible for the West to see itself refracted, to see the Heart of Darkness that goes far to create such horrors and then after the fact clucks regretfully at Africa's hopeless misery. For Amin was a creature of the no-man's land between Europe and Africa, plucked as a starving feral child off the streets of colonial Kampala, raised in violence, and groomed for his terrible brand of statesmanship, beholden to the West and enamored of its decadence. In trying to constitute some feeling of safety and home for himself, his paranoia and narcissism led him to crush any real or imagined opposition. Britain and Israel were happy to feed him weapons until Entebbe, in order to slaughter his own people, as long as he remained "our man", like Mobutu in Congo/Zaire, like the Shah of Iran, like Duvalier in Haiti, like Saddam Hussein...
And Whittaker's performance? The interminable close-ups where you can see every sweating pore? The sustained hysteria? "African savage" indeed. The movie has the beaten-up Scot in the duty-free shop whisper to Amin in smiling revelation: "You're a child! That's what makes you so f**king scary." I have no right to ask, but I do: what self-respecting black man would read such a script and consent to take such a role? When I say I think this film should never have been made, I imagine how preposterous it would be to make a film that concocted a sidekick for Hitler, his "top advisor", an innocent who happened into the snake-pit and found himself collaborating in the murder of a nation. But we can take those liberties when we make films about African despots, and that's the point. Africa continues to be for us what we decide she is, and we do not find it outrageous in the least to view such twisted takes on all-too-real events.
Films have been made about Idi Amin. He was a truly outrageous character, and many of his antics on the world-stage were actually quite comic and even brilliant in their own awful way, if anybody remembers. The Last King of Scotland shows none of this, aside from the tossed-off comment during a press-conference that Queen Elizabeth should really consider sleeping with him. Amin actually gathered a bunch of whites for an ornate ceremony in which they were made to bow down to him: but such a scene would have been unacceptable for viewers in our "post-racial", Obama atmosphere. If a film considered all the elements that went into making Amin, that would be a film worth seeing. Of course in such a film, whites would have to view their own complicity.