Films set in Africa by non-African directors often do very well at the box office – but what do they reveal about the continent? Usually, not a lot, and The Last King of Scotland is sadly no different. Yet again we have A White Man in Africa, this time a young Scottish doctor, fleeing a prescribed and boring life back home, who happens to bump into future Ugandan President Idi Amin. Forest Whitaker deserved his Oscar for playing Amin. But while we get into the Scotsman’s head, which is often in his pants, isn’t it just a little odd that the film has no interest in what motivates Amin?
We only ever see Amin as the Scot and others see him. Whitaker humanizes a pretty thinly written cartoonish part – funny, but increasingly paranoid and scary, and not a million miles from Joker in the Superman comics. Here Amin is a grotesque bogey man, as if Africa’s turmoil is just down to inherent madness. We learn nothing of the internal tensions of multi-ethnic, multi-faith post-colonial Uganda; nor of Amin running that state. This lets too many others off the hook, not least the British, Israelis and Saudis who got him into power or kept him there.
The makers of Last King are canny, know what people think and like, weave in a fictional love story with a blowback, and produce a formulaic thriller. Their script choices lead to the usual, commercially safe, conservative, unchallenging film about Africa. Amin is here the quintessential ‘other’ and the film is tourism. The US film industry will doubtless feel pleased with itself for awarding an African American an Oscar. But it’s just PR. As for anything of substance, as for the issues that affect most Africans, most people anywhere – you might just as well put your lips together and whistle.