Virtual Bourgeois

Just An Analog Guy Trying to Upgrade For a Digital World

Idi Amin and Steve Biko

Posted by Gerald on June 15, 2007

I just finished watching The Last King of Scotland.  Like many other people, and even film critics, I was very impressed by Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of Idi Amin and I thought it was a good film.  One thing bothered me, though.

I generally do not care for criticism of a film for not being a different film.  For example, criticizing the Pirates of the Caribbean films for not being very dramatic or historically accurate.  They were never meant to be.  I do have a problem like this with The Last King of Scotland and it reminded me of a similar problem I had with another biographical file set in Africa – Cry Freedom.

In both films we have a story concerning a significant figure in Africa, in The Last King of Scotland it is the dictator Idi Amin of Uganda and in Cry Freedom it is the anti-apartheid activist and founder of the Black Consciousness movement Steve Biko.  In both cases we see fantastic performances, in the first case Forest Whitaker’s and in Cry Freedom the brilliant performance of Denzel Washington.  In each case, it is the African-American actor and the African character that dominates the screen.

My complaint about both films is that neither of them is actually about the African character.

The Last King of Scotland is actually the story of Nicholas Garrigan (ably portrayed by James McAvoy), a Scottish doctor who winds up as Amin’s personal physician.  He begins by being charmed then winds up horrified as he discovers who Amin really is and then winds up escaping Uganda, to go tell the world the truth about Amin (note this), aboard the airplane that evacuated the non-Israeli hotages aboard Air France Flight 139 before the Israeli commando raid at Entebbe airport.  Garrigan is a fictional character loosely based on a man named Bob Astles.

Cry Freedom is actually the story of a white journalist named Donald Woods (ably portrayed by Kevin Kline), who meets Steve Biko, becomes more radical through his acquaintance.  He finally earns the official displeasure of the South African government, especially due to his reporting after Biko’s death while in police custody.  The last part of the film chronicle’s how Woods and his family escaped from South Africa so he could write a book to tell the world the truth about Biko (coincidence?).

While both films are fine, both seem to assume that a story about Africa has to be told through the eyes of a white guy.  In each case a brilliant performance by an African-American actor is given second place to a capable performance by a white actor.  This is a common Hollywood trope, to give the film a “familiar” character through who the audience explores an “foreign” or “exotic” situation (see Dances With Wolves).  This makes some rather racist assumptions about what constitutes a “familiar” viewpoint, though.  It also isn’t necessary for a film to be successful (see The Last Emperor or Gandhi.)  Both films are laudable enough, but both would have been better if they had told the African’s story from the African’s viewpoint.

Which gets me to my last problem with The Last King of Scotland.  It contained a fascinating portrait of Amin, but there isn’t much of a portrait of Uganda.  There are images of poverty and of violence, but there is no real examination of why there is poverty or why there was violence.  The last part bothers me more here.  The rise of Amin, like that of any brutal dictator, is the result of specific circumstances.  It is the tragedy of Africa that this story isn’t completely unique, but it is still a disservice to Uganda to treat it and it’s history as an interchangeable backdrop.

Of course, this could be just because I teach African history and I’m overly sensitive, but I don’t think so.

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5 Responses to “Idi Amin and Steve Biko”

  1. bridgett said

    “I once owned a farm in Africa….” Yeah, what you said.

  2. Gerald said

    Oh, Oh, “I once was an imperialist in Africa”

    Don’t even get me started!

  3. Steve said

    Could we not make the same argument with Schindler’s List?

  4. Gerald said

    I see what you are saying, but I don’t think it is exactly the same.

    First, I don’t think that Ben Kingsley’s performance in the movie so clearly dominated it as did Washington’s and Whitaker’s.

    On the wider point, though, I don’t think the cases are parallel. Schindler’s List certainly IS a holocaust story that isn’t told from the viewpoint of the victims. However, most Western films or TV that have dealt with the holocaust HAVE told the story from the perspective of the Jews. I would argue that Western films have also begun to do a much better job of telling the stories of other groups of people from their own viewpoint. Still, with the exception of a couple of films about the Rwandan genocide (Hotel Rwanda and Sometimes in April) I cannot think of that many films about Africa where the Africans are the major characters.

    Of course, there is a vibrant African film industry that does tell those stories; I am talking about films from the U.S. and Europe here.

  5. Heidi said

    I just saw the movie and I wholeheartedly agree. The most prominent thing I got from this movie was that the British need to stay out of Africa. I felt the movie was grossly inaccurate historically and very disappointing in that respect.

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