Sushi, Without the Extras

How do you think he got the ideas for the Prince? From his cat, of course.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Last King of Scotland

Right, so I finally saw the film, and to say that I'm horribly disappointed is an overwhelming understatement. The film features Forest Whitaker portraying a madman, a crazy Scottish white man, and enough stock footage of smiling African children to make one wonder if Suzanne Somers isn't somewhere in the background. Oh, and let's not forget the security man--the very image of the silent black savage that terrorized the nightmares of English colonialists. Finally, to end our parade of stereotypes, we have the noble African, who sacrifices himself to get the message out about Uganda, incidentally saving the idiot white man.

What I was hoping for was a nuanced character study of President Amin; what I got was a relatively ham-fisted deconstruction of Nicholas, the feckless white doctor. I walked away from the film convinced it was about fear; the white man's fear of the Other. The white man does go to Africa, where he becomes a killer, forsakes his Hippocratic Oath, and generally becomes little better than the tyrant who killed 300 000 Ugandans. When he finally notices the toll his relationship with Amin has exacted from him, he wants to go home--back to "civilisation" because the politicking and violence isn't "him". Granted, this impression may have stemmed from the discussion leader putting the rabbit in the hat by mentioning Heart of Darkness and the long tradition of colonial films purporting to be about a completely different culture but mostly being about the Crazy White Man. (See The Last Samurai, Apocalypse Now, Tears of the Sun) It's hard to draw any sort of real conclusions from the film, mostly because it lacks a real thematic focus. The film is clearly meant to present the viewer with real and important questions regarding race relations in Africa, the relationships African nations have with the rest of the world, and the rest of the world's relationships with Africa.

The dialogue makes clear that the British put Amin in power, and it's equally clear that the English--the white colonial power--are willing to force the doctor to kill Amin, rectifying the mess. The English diplomat/spy certainly comes off as being an unrepentant racist and general all around villain. Then, we have the image of the white doctor meandering through Africa as if he were on holiday, including an affair with a nameless African woman in the first 15 minutes of the film. We know there's something off about him because he's willing to attempt to talk the Missionary Doctor's wife into sleeping with him, and he's equally willing to pick up a gun and shoot an injured cow because it was annoying him never thinking that the cow might be the farmer's primary possession. Nicholas is also willing to buy into the necessity of violent tyrants in Africa, and one wonders if that's supposed to intimate to the viewer his views that somehow Africans are incapable of governance sans violence.

However, the film's depiction of the Ugandans isn't particularly favorable. From Kate's comment that "they danced the same way for Obote" as for Amin to the never-ending parade of smiling, waving urchins, we never see a positive imagine of Africans. In the film, the Ugandans are either trying to kill each other or are dancing. Although I've never been to Africa, I'm reasonably certain that Africans, in general, do more than sing, torture, and smile for the birdie. I can only imagine that Africans watching this film leave with a sour taste in their mouths because all the film does is portray stereotypical images of Africa: its poverty, its illness, and its lack of governance. The discussion leader rightly commented that none of the images of Africa were new; we've seen them all in a dozen films before. I'd go a bit further and argue that the portrayal of the Ugandans smacks of a particularly insidious form of racism and that the film certainly doesn't encourage useful discussion of governance in Africa. (I should mention that governance seems to be a theme in the film, though we see precious little indication of what goes on in Uganda during Amin's tenure.) In fact, the negative images of Africans are so pervasive that I really wondered if I agreed with Thomas that his country deserved better. Most of the Africans in the film are either the perpetrators of atrocities, helpless victims of same, or the aforementioned smiling, singing urchins. That doesn't scream "I deserve better" to me.

Forest Whitaker gives a brilliant and unsettling performance; he earned every inch of that little gold man they gave him for his work. Absent that performance, I would have left the room. However, I still would like to know what I should have taken away from the film. Am I to assume that all foreign intervention will end in horrible failure, to include mass murder? Am I supposed to walk away thinking that Africans aren't worth saving? Thomas saves Nicholas so that Nicholas can redeem himself, but I'm not certain he will even do that. The last we see of Nick, he's on the plane and has collapsed inward. Am I to walk away from the film wondering if a western white person can even survive in these foreign cultures (and savage--the President does have his wife dismembered AND Nicholas strung up by hooks inserted into his flesh)?

I walked away with no answer to these questions and even more despondent about Africa's future. If this is the discussion we're having as the international community about Africa, then the so-called Dark Continent will remain in its dark ages because we're still unable to engage the several nations and tribes on the continent in any sort of realistic way. Films like this one reinforce stereotypes of Africa all the while masquerading as important and nuanced portrayals of African life and culture, and in so doing, they contribute to the problem rather than the solution.

Nope, this is not a film I'm putting on the DVD purchase list.

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