Africa and Aboriginal Tuesdays: Blurry Lines: Truth, Fiction, & The Last King of Scotland by Stephane Dunn
At its conclusion, The Last King of Scotland fades into visuals of the ‘real’ Idi Amin. Amin smiles and dances with the folk and poses in full military dress. The very last image closes in on Amin’s dark African face, providing a final commentary, an affirmation, of the now cemented legacy of the late Ugandan leader—Idi Amin, madman. Brute.
Despite the statement of director Kevin MacDonald to the contrary, The Last King of Scotland is inevitably being popularly consumed and labeled as a biopic. Based on the novel of the same name by British journalist Giles Foden, the film, according to Fox Searchlight, is a recreation of Uganda “under the mad dictatorship of Idi Amin. Deftly mixing fact and fiction . . .” Herein is one of the disturbing aspects of a film that takes on a historical figure already so entrenched in truth and mythology. Of course, unsurprisingly, a Western film that undertakes to tell an African history through a non-African, western frame already invites questions about whose truth and perspective gets to dominate. Through whose eyes is ‘truth’ filtered and how blurred are the lines between truth and fiction?
In this case, the question takes on a particular resonance because the Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, is a double fiction of sorts, a made up character in a book by a British author, a character inserted as an outside/insider who achieves a highly implausible, unprecedented intimacy with Amin. In the film, young Garrigan arrives in Uganda right after Amin’s successful overthrow of President Obote and just in time to treat Amin’s minor injury, impressing the new President with his ballsy shooting of the animal that hurt him. The film, like the novel, barely offers a precursory glimpse into Amin’s particular fancy for Scottish history and culture, never taking the opportunity to explore even a little Amin’s confiscation of the self-prescribed ‘king of Scotland’ moniker. To be fair, it is difficult to reconstruct a personal history fraught with fragments. As MacDonald has said, “Nobody seems to know the truth about him” and even to the Ugandans, Amin is “semimythical.” Nonetheless, a film that assertively melds truth, fiction, and imagination in the telling of a real person and a critical moment in history should work harder to tease out some of the significant details, particularly in terms of the Ugandan people’s perspectives on Amin and their country as his reign unfolded.
The employment of the Scottish character obviously enables the lukewarm, veiled critique of the British colonialist relationship to Uganda and is meant to counter questions of perspective and framing by affecting a less, imperialist and westernized point of view. Garrigan is careful to distinguish himself from the ‘big brother’ British watchers still invested in directing the course of Uganda: ‘I’m Scottish.’ Of course, the British presence in Uganda historically and just prior to Amin’s reign does not register in the film; we are only given anti-white imperialist sound bites that indict Garrigan’s self serving reasons for being in Uganda from the mouth of Amin, the ‘real life’ based character that never really fails to register as anything but a smiling, raving ‘madman’.
The Last King of Scotland is visually striking with its series of close-ups on Whitaker’s darkened, sweaty face channeling Amin and the dismembered, tortured bodies of his victims. It is mostly powerful because of the already well-known, accepted legacy of violence attributed to Amin and Forest Whitaker’s highly touted portrayal. Whitaker has the ability to imbue his spooky, tragic, disturbing, and rather uneasily digestible characters with an aura of vulnerability; his roles in such movies as The Crying Game and Jason’s Lyric personify his deft touch.
Unfortunately, The Last King relies on Whitaker’s considerable gifts as a character actor without fully exercising its potential. It settles instead on Whitaker in literal and figurative blackface affirming the now taken for granted ‘madman’, ‘brute’, and ‘ruthless’ dictator without being interested in even imagining how Idi Amin the madman became so or who he was or was not before his ascension to the heady, self-appointed status as ‘Lord of all the beasts of the earth and fishes of the sea.’ There is for example, virtually no interest in the young man serving the British Army or in his familial background.
A film already renders itself problematic when taking on the lofty representation of presenting ‘Ugandan history’ when it begins in Scotland with the fictional white character and ends on an all too familiar note: the heroic escape and moral redemption of the young, white doctor from a bloody dictator who somehow can manage to slaughter some 300,000 people but fail to pull off the execution of one lone, white boy. The Last King of Scotland follows a script that long predates the book’s 1998 publication, and it is easier because its subject [Amin] is such an established dark face of evil. The pale, brutalized, and soul tortured body of the white character becomes the mirror through which Amin’s ‘black’ African face is amplified.
Stephane Dunn, Ph.D, is a writer, scholar, and educator. She specializes in popular culture, 20th century African American Studies, and American literature. A creative writer and cultural critic, she writes plays, creative nonfiction, and essays about film, popular culture, and contemporary social issues. She has been a professor and worked as an educational consultant, editor, and speaker. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through her website www.stephanedunn.mysite.com
Tuesday, November 7, 2006