Saturday, January 20, 2007

In Darkest Africa

Earlier today, I caught up with The Last King of Scotland, Kevin Macdonald's adaptation of Giles Foden's novel that is centered around the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. It screened at the Walter Reade Theater as part of a tribute to Forest Whitaker, who gives a magisterial performance as the wily, charming, and evil Amin, and shows us in a chilling manner how these qualities can coexist in the same man. Whitaker, who recently took home a Golden Globe for his performance, is more than deserving of the fulsome praise he has received so far. Ever since his breakout role in Scorsese's The Color of Money, he has quietly become one of the world's finest actors. From his first scene in the film, in which he pumps up a massive crowd at a rally ("You can oh yeah!"), Whitaker is an electric screen presence as seductive to us in the audience as he is to the feckless Scottish do-gooder he takes under his wing, played by James McAvoy.

So as I say, Whitaker is as brilliant as everyone says. It's what surrounds him that I find highly problematic. Amin is not the main character of either the film or the novel, but instead the film's protagonist, the one we as audience members are invited to sympathize with, is Nicholas Garrigan, a naive, impulsive, and quite stupid Scottish med-school graduate who, looking for a place to practice medicine, picks Uganda at random by spinning a globe and pointing a finger (after first landing on Canada and quickly spinning again). Garrigan, who is picked by Amin to be his personal physician, is apparently a composite character made up of a number of white advisors who were complicit in keeping Amin in power, even as he systematically murdered his own people by the thousands.

However, this insistence of seeing Amin and the events in Uganda through the eyes of this white observer, which is a typical strategy of films that use Africa as its subject, Blood Diamond being the most recent example, serves to render hazy the origins and the specifics of the colonialist legacy and tribal conflicts that conspire to create a figure such as Amin. We walk away from the film no more enlightened about Amin or Uganda than we were when we went in. Yes, Amin was a bad, bad guy, but was there any doubt of that? Is that all Macdonald's film has to say?

Also, I personally find it rather insulting that so many films about Africa (and this is true of other non-Western cultures depicted in films) seem to feel that the audience requires a surrogate to translate the events for us, as if everyone in the audience is white (which is certainly not true in my case). Through the eyes of this usually horrified observer, we are invited to tsk-tsk and say, "isn't that horrible?" And then the credits roll, we throw away our popcorn, and we are no longer required to reflect or do our own thinking, since the filmmakers have presumably already done that for us.

And using such a self-absorbed, thoughtless, and purposely blind character, who makes incredibly stupid moves such as sleeping with one of the wives of his murderous dictator boss (!), truly puts the white surrogate strategy to its ultimate test. In the film's second half, Amin becomes more and more relegated to the background, as the bills come due on Garrigan's dumb mistakes. The film becomes increasingly overheated as the hellish consequences of Amin's desperation and paranoia come to full fruition, and the camerawork of Anthony Dod Mantle (the great Dogma cinematographer) illustrates a Dantean maelstrom, as the bodies (often hacked and mutilated) pile up.

But all this sound and fury generates much more heat than it does light, and in the end, Whitaker's masterful work is put in the service of yet another simplistic, despairing, and unenlightening depiction of Africa. Correctives to this are sorely needed, and luckily there are quite a few available. I refer you to the works of, for example, Senegal's Ousmane Sembene, or Mali's great filmmaker Abderrahmane Sissako, whose intellectually and emotionally satisfying Bamako, about the impact of the IMF and the World Bank on Africa, opens at the Film Forum on February 14. I saw this film last year at the New York Film Festival, and Sissako's film deals with the issue of Africa's misery in a complex, rigorous, and formally inventive way, as opposed to Macdonald's film which doesn't even attempt such a task.

Also, if you want to see the real Idi Amin on film, and you're in the New York area, then make your way to the Museum of the Moving Image, where on February 9 and 10, Barbet Schroeder's celebrated documentary General Idi Amin Dada will screen as part of the New York Film Critics Circle's series "Critics Choice: Great Documentaries." More info can be found here.
Last King of Scotland trailer:

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