A Great Performance
Last night I watched “The Last King of Scotland“. It was a well made and fascinating movie that made me think and dream about it. First of all, Forrest Whitaker‘s portrayal of Idi Amin is so real it is eerie. Few times have I seen an actor so totally lose himself in a role that I forget about the actor. Robert De Niro, in Raging Bull, is the only other performance I can think of that comes close of a well known actor portraying a famous person so completely that all you see is the person he is portraying.
The Stories that We Tell Make Us Who We Are
The movie also got me thinking about the arrogance of white Europeans, in the form of the young Scottish doctor who is the protagonist of the film. Several times in the film characters point out that he is being naive and arrogant in thinking of his life as an adventure instead of really looking closely at where he is, who he is, and how his actions affect people around him. He is a white European in a black African nation. Yet he still feels as though he is safe and his actions have no affect on the people around him. It is good to show the naive arrogance of white people especially when they are involved in adventures in the third world. But, in some ways the movie wants us to see him as innocent. He is more naive than innocent. This is normal for movies. As a film maker, you want your audience to have sympathy for your protagonist. They show him as a basically good-natured, easy going fellow who shows a genuine enthusiasm for sharing life with everybody he meets. It is made clear that he doesn’t want to hurt anyone. And, yet throughout the film he endangers many people through thoughtless behavior. There is no doubt he thinks of himself as a good and humble person. But, the consequences of not paying attention are too great. He rises to a level of importance in the lives of other people far beyond his ability to perceive the affects of his actions on their lives. Many would be decent people do this. It is one way that monsters are made in the world. He ends up feeding the monster. It is not the lack of people who have morals and know what is right and wrong that allows monstrous atrocities to occur. It is the lack of people who have the conviction and insight to act courageously to stop them, people who see what is going on and do something about it in a timely manner. The doctor sees only what he wants to see and ignores what is inconvenient and messy. He is too busy making up his personal adventure story to pay attention to the complex intricacies of an unfamiliar culture. To the films credit, dire consequences occur, both to himself and others, as a result of his lack of insight.
The film makers of course used every brutal story, true or not, about Idi Amin to emphasize the feeling of danger and instability in the situation. This is definitely a thriller not a historical piece. It shows how people are led by a persuasive charismatic leader out of a bad dream into a nightmare. It is not accurate, but is generally true in the broad historical context. It is also true in the way that it shows the European governments creating an unstable situation by building up a colonial system that supports the degradation of the native people, then abandoning the former colony in its impoverished and illiterate state after training its future dictators, and finally standing by and commenting on the inability of Africans to govern themselves as if they, the Europeans, had no hand in the situation to begin with. Interspersed, throughout the film are minor British characters who state opinions about how poorly the Africans govern themselves, but this comes as no surprise to them. Again it is the arrogance of seeing only the narrative that fits what the storyteller wants to see. In this case, the story of Europeans only want to hear the story about being benevolent bringers of civilization to the undeserving savages. These warped stories help create monsters like Idi Amin, who grow up amid the despair and denigration, hearing the stories of power and wealth dressed in the fine clothing of progress. They write their own stories of self-made heroism in the face of insurmountable obstacles in which they are the only important character. They attempt to erase the many parts of the larger story through fear and intimidation whenever it threatens to contradict the heroic narrative of their personal epic.
A Dream Movie
Another kind of thinking I did about this film was dream thinking. I had a dreams all night, mostly about the minor African characters who where brutally killed in the film and the African thugs who did the killing. It was as if the minor characters all got together and made their own film in my sleeping mind out of revolt against the amount of attention the white Scottish doctor gets in the actual movie. He did not appear in my dream movie. I can only remember bits and pieces of the dream movie which was full of violence and fear. There is one detail I remember clearly. I was in the office of one of Idi Amin’s advisers who had just been disappeared by thugs of the regime. Examining a row of neatly arranged books, I noticed one in the middle. The title was printed in bold blood red letters that ran the down length of the white spine, “The Three-fold Stone of Culture by Leonard Cohen.” I have no idea what it means or how it fits in with the movie and African politics, but it sounds fascinating. It does not sound like something Leonard Cohen would write, but I would give it a try if I came across it in my waking life.