The Last King of Scotland

It was difficult for me to watch Kevin Macdonald’s feature debut, The Last King of Scotland (IMDB) without thinking of (and wishing to rewatch) Barbet Schroeder’s disturbing documentary about the brutal Ugandan dictator, General Idi Amin Dada: A Self-Portrait. In Schroeder’s documentary, we see Amin as a strangely innocent and charming figure while also being forced to reconcile these images with the brutal dictator who was responsible for the deaths of at least 300,000 Ugandans. While most audience members will be unaware of the documentary, Last King depends almost entirely on Forest Whitaker’s “chameleonic” performance as the mercurial despot, it was never entirely clear to me what story the film was trying to tell about Uganda or Amin.

The film views Amin through the eyes of a young Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who briefly takes work as a doctor helping Uganda’s rural poor before being taken in as Amin’s personal physician, in part because of Amin’s admiration for all things Scottish (he even names his children Mackenzie and Campbell). Garrigan, as the Voice review notes, is a composite of a number of white advisors who helped Amin retain power, although in the film, Garrigan gradually becomes repulsed by Amin’s actions and his own complicity in them (he even lies at one point to cover for Amin’s assassination of a Ugandan bureaucrat).

I’m still sorting out what I didn’t like about Last King, and I’m wondering if it isn’t related to my response to Blood Diamond a few days ago. While I recognize there can be value in using the conventions of the Hollywood thriller to depict stories such as Amin’s, I found that both films relied too heavily on stock characters that seemed to have the effect of leaving the politics of postcolonialism in the abstract. Instead of the idealistic reporter and the mercenary, Last King offers a naive doctor who is lured in by Amin’s charms and by the pleasures of wealth and power. And, yet again, a story about Africa is told through the eyes of a white outsider, although, to be fair, it is interesting that Africa has become the subject fo so many Hollywood films.

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