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Film Review: The Last King of Scotland

The Last King of Scotland (2006; Directed by Kevin Macdonald)

Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland is technically accomplished, texturally interesting, and full of strong performances. It also builds up some suspense and dread in its last half, even if it can get slightly overheated in doing so. But, like so many Western narratives about Africa, it’s more of a staging ground for the anxieties of imperial cultures than it is an honest and straightforward examination of the African experience of colonialism and its aftermath.

Macdonald’s Uganda has a sunsoaked look and sweltering feel, its roads popping in sharp maroons against the verdant jungles and savannas. Shot by Anthony Dod Mantle (who won an Oscar for his similar cinematography in Slumdog Millionaire, a vaguely Orientalist Scot-helmed colonial vision of a whole other sort), the film’s texture darkens and sinisterizes (new word?) as its content does. The effect of this is Conradian in the extreme, as James McAvoy plays a boyish Marlow winding inexorably down the river into that eternal “heart of darkness”, this time embodied by the inner circle of power around Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). McAvoy’s Nicholas Garrigan carries the film’s immense colonial responsibility, and his descent from a brash, spoiled idealist to a battered, desperate state, complicit in war crimes and helpless to escape, is balanced elegantly by a young actor who seems to be coming into his own before our eyes as the film unfolds (and who has followed this role with more in its mirror image).

This descending arc of the Garrigans character (a composite of several true-to-life European consigliere in Amin’s orbit) likewise mirrors that of the idealized colonial project, a self-justifying discourse of good intentions twisted into poor results (rather than a selfish and greedy venture that presaged predictably disastrous consequences, as a less rosy view of African colonialism might conceive of). The British agents he runs into seem jaded and weary of the place, satisfied to let Amin do as he pleases. One of the film’s most memorable and disturbing sequences, Garrigan’s dizzy walk through dimly-lit hospital corridors past wailing, mournful Ugandans on his way to the film’s most gut-wrenching image, is Macdonald’s closest approximation of Conrad’s (in)famous downriver voyage that haunts so many postcolonial narratives.

Forest Whitaker’s Oscar-winning turn as Idi Amin ought to have been a golden opportunity to deepen and contextualize the film’s post-colonialist critique. Plucked from poverty to be trained to kill by the British Army, Amin became a grotesque hybrid of British imperial and homegrown African excess, blasting out anti-colonialist rhetoric while yearning to belong to the proud Scottish culture of his one-time commanding officers, claiming to be doing his best for Uganda while murdering hundreds of thousands of its citizens. Although Whitaker eerily approximates Amin’s accent, ticks and imposing stature, and though he balances the dictator’s charming populism with his paranoid vindictive streak, his depths go unsounded. What truly drove his powerful identification with Scottish culture and tradition? What led him to denounce the very colonial structure that uplifted him, if it was anything more than political survivalism? Is the film’s only real explanation for all of his dangerous eccentricities really Garrigan’s climactic, paternalistic pronouncement that Amin is a “child”? Is Garrigan really so absorbed in imperial hubris that he thinks he’s any more mature? For all the exquisite actorly detail of Whitaker’s performance, his version of Amin remains the film’s enigmatic Kurtz, a compelling mystery that stands in for other darkenesses and other evils as he stands astride his central African fiefdom with absolute power.

One can’t help but notice the plethora of Scots at the centre of the production, working out their own fundamentally colonized culture’s active participation in the colonial project of their English administrators through the tragic horror of a man who wanted desperately to be one of them. As potent and indelible as The Last King of Scotland can often be, it demonstrates the continued unwillingness of Western culture to see Africa (and its continued endemic problems) on its own terms. The narrative structure of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (like Amin, Conrad was a man of a marginalized nation who yearned to be a citizen of another one, and, unlike Amin, managed to become what he desired) continues to dominate stories about “the Dark Continent”, and this film is no exception. As powerful and effective as it often is, its central interpretation is essentially a century old. And that, it seems to me, is a problem.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. October 8, 2013 at 5:20 pm
  2. April 6, 2015 at 10:04 am

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