The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

“Last King of Scotland” (2006)

Talk about a movie elevated by a single performance.  Absent the phenomenal work of Forest Whitaker as General Idi Amin, this film about a Scottish doctor’s unlikely friendship with the Ugandan dictator would be rather predictable (white man goes to African country, immediately enters the highest realms of power, sleeps with beautiful African women, is ultimately repelled by the savages, etc.).

But Whitaker’s performance…alternately funny, terrifying, heart-felt, warm, and fiendishly charismatic, is one of the finest film portrayals I have ever seen in my life.  No other performance in the film is even vaguely on the same level, and I’ve seen no other this year anywhere to eclipse it.  Stunning.

Anyone who knows me even slightly can well imagine my complaints with “Last King,” so I won’t go there.  The entire venture would earn an “Alert” banner if it weren’t for Forest, if, for instance, they had cast Micheal Clark Duncan as the dictator, they would have had a monster movie.  It is impossible to avoid an examination of the origins of this particular monster, who was beloved by his people even as he slaughtered them.  To this day, Ugandans seem divided in how they view him (according to film crew who shot there over a period of months.)

But “Last King” touches on the legacy of Colonialism.  When national boundaries are sliced through tribal homelands, and outsiders hand out power to tribal leaders who may have been at war for generations, it is easily understandable how things can go very, very wrong when said Colonial power leaves.  Ethnic fighting becomes horrific.  There are fascinating social anthropology studies on the patterns of violence following such actions, and they are grimly familiar.

Amin was the product of such action, and I remember hearing nothing—and I mean nothing—positive about him back in the day.  I heard FAR more positive things about Hitler, believe me.  And the fact that a film with Amin at the center is far more likely to be made than one about, say, Mandela, is heart-breaking.

But the fact is that I loved this movie, that at the core of it remains a classic, impeccable performance by an artist who has yet to receive his full due.  “King” has Oscar all over it—for both positive and negative reasons.  It reinforces all of the most negative stereotypes of Africa.  But it also touches truth about the resulting chaos when differential social and technological development collide.  And Amin’s tortured psyche is a perfectly logical place to experience this collision. 

Did this story have to be told through the eyes of a Scot?  Well, if you want the movie to be seen outside of tiny art houses and DVD rental stores, yeah, probably.  Remember that little problem with human perception we keep talking about.

But  there was real horror in Uganda.  And whatever you consider the origins, real horror currently stalks that raped and pillaged continent.  And “Last King” captures it in a manner oddly in balance with “Hotel Rwanda.”  Incredible film.  An “A.”

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