The horrific and subtle progression of Barbet Schroeder’s documentary masterpiece General Idi Amin Dada (1974) balances it’s infamous subject’s charming and conniving rhetoric alongside his murderous and costly paranoia. Smartly framing Amin’s Jekyll and Hyde personality within the context of Uganda as a nation in transition, Schroeder captures what Hollywood can’t – real life crumbling before our very eyes. The common people suffer the most, while the General stubbornly plays God until there’s no one left to blame.
So why does mainstream American filmmaking even try to follow up such complex material? Oscars.Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Amin towers over everything else in The Last King of Scotland, a purposefully naive account of the dictator’s rise to power in Uganda during the 1970’s. His speech to a field of peasants in the opening minutes of the film sets the bar high, rallying both the spectator (represented by a traveling Scottish doctor named Nicholas Garrigan) and the common people, with grandiose awe-inspiring prose. While these opening scenes live up to the hype Whitaker is grabbing for his flashy, over the top performance, the rest of the film languishes in mediocrity. Early on Garrigan gets talked into being Amin’s personal physician and the impending montage shows the two indulging in good food, fast cars, and countless woman. The superstar has drafted the rookie and it’s completely cliched story-telling.
But audiences and Oscar voters alike are drawn to Whitaker’s larger than life incarnation, overlooking the fact this monster had more depth and appeal than most. His atrocities, over 300,000 people killed, gets flashed on the screen over the film’s credits like an afterthought.The Last King of Scotland certainly doesn’t represent these numbers in terms of on-screen footage, nor is it concerned with the same things Schroeder addressed in his documentary. Scotland only sees it’s subject and historical consequences through the rose colored glasses of it’s protagonist, choosing blindness and arrogance over substance.
It seems any recent Hollywood film set in Africa, like the all too safe Blood Diamond, must have noble, black characters and naive, white imbeciles wondering “why” and “how could they”! The Last King of Scotland is an even more extreme example, building it’s entire narrative structure around Garrigan’s ignorance and blind eye toward Amin’s irrational and text book power junkie attitude. It’s easy to peg Amin in these terms and it’s exactly what Schroeder’s documentary avoids. But Hollywood wants an easy villain.
Kevin MacDonald, who made the incredible Touching The Void, seems to be sleepwalking through this assignment, using a monotonous blend of fast -paced editing and bleached out colors, the standard for Africa settings. One can look no further than A Constant Gardener for a unique, fleshed out rendering of Africa, the vision of a director attempting to say something pertinent no matter the mainstream consequences (that picture failed at the box office). The Last King of Scotland, awash in familiar good vs. evil characters, is only concerned with impressing Oscar.