28 January 2009

The Last King of Scotland (2006)

It's taken a while for this movie to scroll up my Netflix list, but I finally watched The Last King of Scotland (2006) this evening--part of a snow day extravaganza of irresponsibility. As I expected, I was floored by Forest Whitaker's portrayal of the megalomaniacal (perhaps bipolar? schizophrenic? psychotic?) Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. He showed a range that any actor would be proud to possess, and a passion that I've rarely seen equalled in film.

That said, the rest of the movie was just so-so. The thought that occurred to me during the opening moments of the film--and which never faded--was, "here's one more movie about black people that stars a white guy." I mean, how many times does this happen? From To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) to Cry Freedom (1987) to Mississippi Burning (1988), there seems to be this pervasive assumption that (white) audiences can't (won't?) watch a movie about black people unless there's a white tour guide there to narrate us through the process. So instead of seeing a culture through its own eyes, we're constantly peering through the judgmental eyes of an outsider (James MacAvoy's Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, in this case), enchanted by the quaintly exotic ways of the adorable indigenous people or horrified by the primitive savagery of their attempts at cultivation and self-rule. POV and reaction shots tutor us in how to respond to the sights we're shown. For a movie made in 2006, this was a remarkably colonial affair, putting the ethos of Rudyard Kipling's "White Man's Burden" in the mouth of a grimy British fixer, but never really doing anything to correct that imperial indictment of Ugandan culture and her people. There's no sense of a Ugandan opposition to Amin, any sort of resistance (organized or not), or even a critical awareness of what Amin is doing. The only person in the film who's given a knowledgeable voice about the cyclical nature of Ugandan politics is Sarah Merrit the white wife of a white doctor who works tirelessly for the poor in the Ugandan countryside. In fact, other than Amin--and possibly Garrigan--there's not a fully developed character in the entire film...just a bunch of "stock" Africans.

I'm not asking for Idi Amin to be presented as a hero--that's absurd, by all accounts. But what about all those Ugandans in the movie? There were African people whose perspectives on Amin's reign would have been spectacular and intimate--not the least would have been Dr. Junju, or how about Jonah Wasswa? What would the same story have been like through their eyes? (Incidentally, there's an al Jazeera documentary feature on Idi Amin called "I Knew Idi Amin." It's narrated by a stereotypical BBC voice, but it features interviews with dozens of people who knew Amin.)

Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Maybe--I don't know; I'd love to hear your ideas. But I feel like I see plenty of movies where people of color--ethnic "others"--serve as backdrop for a character study of some American or Western European white person. I thought that about The Painted Veil (2006), too. I guess I expect to see more of that from older movies, but when I see major films still following that same pattern in the early 21st century, all I can do is wonder why? Is it purely financial? A fear that the large, wealthy, white audience won't come to see a film that doesn't feature a comforting white face? Or is there some ideology here?

(Image above is from http://www.mtv.com/photos/?fid=1541250&pid=2081790.)


Katy said...

That's an interesting thought...I haven't seen it in a while so I might be a little sketchy on what happens. I think having a white main character was actually a good idea, because we got to see the inside involvement of the british in uganda at the time. I don't think it would have been easy to convey their involvement if you just saw their communication with amin...mcavoy's character was a third-party witnessing it. I've seen this movie before, and we are watching it for my ugandan politics class next week. It is interesting to have professors here that lived through amin's rule. I think he went crazy from syphilis actually...he was actually that psycho apparently. Oh, also, hotel rwanda was pretty well rounded with mostly all african characters (with a few exceptions), and that was successful commercially.

Kevin Maness said...

Yes! I was going to mention Hotel Rwanda as a powerful exception.

Other movies that came out around the same time as Hotel Rwanda, on the other hand, continued the Great White Star pattern, including Constant Gardner and Blood Diamond.

Is the assumption that no Ugandans knew about how involved the British were in Ugandan politics? If that's the case, then I see what you're saying. But it's hard for me to believe that all the Ugandans were unaware of that interference (if for no other reason than Amin's constant and very public discourse about European attempts to influence African and Ugandan affairs). I'd be interested to know what your Ugandan professors and friends think of the movie!