Saturday, October 07, 2006

The Last King of Scotland

Like other films that portray grave human rights abuses--Schindler's List, Hotel Rwanda, and The Killing Fields come to mind--The Last King of Scotland is difficult to watch. But, like these other films, it has an important message and deserves a large audience.

The Last King of Scotland follows Idi Amin's rise and fall in Uganda during the 1970s through the eyes of a fictional young doctor from Scotland, Nicholas Garrigan. Amin, an uneducated Ugandan army general, ousted President Milton Obote in a coup in 1971. His charisma and his willingness to stand up to former colonial powers initially made Amin very popular in Uganda, but he quickly became more and more paranoid, repressive, and brutal. By the time he was ousted in 1979, Amin had established one of the most abusive regimes in Africa's post-colonial history. It is estimated that 300,000 Ugandans were killed during his bloody reign.

In its broad outlines, The Last King of Scotland offers a solidly historical portrayal of Idi Amin's Uganda. As most critics have noted, Forest Whitaker does an outstanding job--Oscar-quality, perhaps--of capturing Amin's charisma and his paranoia. (For more on Amin, including speculation that he may have suffered from dementia brought on by syphilis, see this obituary that appeared in the Guardian shortly after his death in exile in 2003.)

The main fictional character, Dr. Garrigan, seems in some respects to be unnecessary--Amin's rise and fall is morbidly fascinating even without making the central character an idealistic young white man whom Amin will befriend and then torture--but it's a type of character that filmmakers tackling subjects like this one often rely on. It's an "empathy character"--someone with whom white American and European movie-goers can identify. When director John Boorman tried to tell the story of Myanmar's military dictatorship in the 1995 film Beyond Rangoon, he used an American woman visiting the country (played by Patricia Arquette) as the eyes through which the audience would see the unfolding events. When director Roland Joffe depicted Pol Pot's genocide in Cambodia in the late 1970s in The Killing Fields, he focused on New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg (played by Sam Waterston) and his perspective on what happened. Even director David Lean's majestic Gandhi employed various British and American characters (Rev. Charlie Andrews, a reporter named Vince Walker, and the photographer Margaret Bourke-White) to offer Western views of non-Western events.

It is unfortunate that the boundaries of our empathy require filmmakers to tell every story using characters who look like the whites in their audiences. But at least stories like this one--the tragedy of Uganda under Idi Amin--are actually told occasionally so that some moviegoers will be forced to confront unpleasant events of the not-too-distant past. But more people need to see films like The Last King of Scotland.

(If you've seen The Last King of Scotland, I'd like to know what you thought of it.)