Thursday, April 19, 2007

Movie Notes: The Last King of Scotland (2006)

The charismatic, ursine General Idi Amin Dada was the President of Uganda from 1971 to 1979. A British protectorate from 1894, Uganda was given independence in 1962. In 1966, Prime Minister Milton Obote declared himself President, ushering in an era of coups and counter-coups. In 1971, Idi Amin took power. A popular ruler, but deeply unstable, Amin would go on to banish all Asians from the nation and have some 300,000 people killed before being driven off by the Uganda-Tanzania War in 1979. A military tyrant, Amin eventually gave himself the modest title "His Excellency, President for Life, Field Marshal Al Hadji Doctor Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular", suggesting that his business cards were also monstrous.

Any film about Amin has the advantage of being able to draw from Barbet Schroeder's fascinating 1974 documentary General Idi Amin Dada: A Self Portrait, which I highly recommend seeing. Schroeder's film follows Amin around Uganda in a series of interviews in which his behavior gradually transforms from being quite charming to truly bizarre. By the middle of the film, it's hard not to be convinced that Amin was mad as a hatter. Forrest Whitaker's performance here is really spot on, capturing Amin's strange blend of charm and sheer lunacy mixed in a heady hypo manic brew. He is extremely likable and exciting even; until gradually he is not.

Whitaker's performance is bombastic and luminescent- his performance is the main reason to watch this film. Surprisingly, the central character of the film is entirely fictional, a Scottish doctor, played by James McAvoy who serves as a proxy for the real-life European associates of Amin, as well as the audience, and who is gradually drawn into a thriller world of deceit and double-crosses. It's a strange choice making this fictional character the focal point of a historical story, and it actually comes from the novel on which the film is based. And so it's not entirely clear exactly how fictionalized the film is. Also, like Blood Diamond, one has to wonder if English-speaking audiences are just not expected to be able to identify with an African character, even in films about Africa.

Because the doctor is the main character as well as Amin's personal physician, the film becomes a parable about loyalty and European expectations and caricatures of Africa. Unfortunately, it's also a bit glib and the thriller format doesn't help in that area, and ultimately it becomes something of a African caricature as well. What redeems the film is Forest Whitaker, who humanizes someone as beguiling as Idi Amin. The film is not perfect, but his performance is.

Note: Currently, Uganda is a Republic with a President, a Prime Minister and a Parliament. Elections are held, although in recent years, opposition parties have been limited or outright harassed. President Yoweri Museveni, who toppled Milton Obote (who himself returned to rule from 1980-1985) is certainly a far better President than Amin, but he as well has been accused of corruption and using strong tactics towards the opposition. in the late 80s, Amnesty International detailed gross human rights abuses by troops from the National Resistance Army, and torture is still heard of today. In recent years, Museveni has taken steps that seem to indicate he is moving towards a more permanent position, and he has been criticized by various Westerners. Even more depressing, he has made plans to allocate 30,000 hectacres of rainforest to an Asian sugar company, and his police have fired on protesters who are upset with these plans. On the other hand, Museveni has led Uganda towards relative economic growth and an effective response to the HIV crisis. In 2006, he was elected for another 5 year term, after having promised in 2001 to never run again.

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