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‘The Last King of Scotland’ is flawed, but ...

Forest Whitaker gives an Oscar-winning performance

Published Mar 1, 2007 2:12 AM

Forest Whitaker

Forest Whitaker won the best actor Oscar at the 79th Annual Academy Awards Feb. 25 for his portrayal of Idi Amin in the film, “The Last King of Scotland.”

“The Last King of Scotland” purports to depict Uganda’s former leader by offering a condensed-time snapshot of Amin’s leadership through the eyes of his fictional personal Scottish physician, Nicholas Garrigan, played by James McAvoy. The movie claims in its opening credits that it is inspired by real people and events. It is actually based on a novel by Giles Foden. At best Garrigan offers a synthesis of how those close to Amin could have viewed the former leader.

Whitaker’s convincing performance takes viewers for an emotional ride as they watch a life-loving leader with an easy smile impose a dictatorship allegedly responsible for the torture, murder and disappearance of up to 300,000 Ugandans.

Some critics questioned Whitaker for the extent to which he “humanized” Amin. What these critics fail to recognize is that many people, including Ugandans, identify with Amin because of his individual role in the struggle against colonialism’s legacy.

The film’s major shortcoming is that it seeks to reduce Amin to a one-dimensional character that is portrayed as being foolhardy as well as brutal. Such an analysis takes Amin and the struggles of the Ugandan people in the 1970s out of the context of the country’s emergence from British colonialism in 1962.

The real-life Idi Amin swept to power in Uganda in 1971 on the heels of a military coup that displaced President Milton Obote. Amin’s ascension to power was initially endorsed by the British and Israelis.

Imperialist and Zionist leaders hoped that Amin would reverse the gains of the 1966 national-democratic revolution which abolished the institution of monarchy and eliminated the caste system prevalent in two of the kingdoms that made up Uganda.

When Amin refused to restore the kingdoms to their former power and befriended national liberation groups, such as the Palestinian Liberation Organization, he fell out of favor with the foreign powers who hoped to use him for rule by proxy.

The capitalist press, which cared very little for the Ugandan people to begin with, moved to discredit Amin by demonizing him as a wicked despot. The racist propaganda went so far as to imply that Amin consumed the bodies of political opponents in acts of ritualistic cannibalism. The premise of “The Last King of Scotland” that Amin imposed an authoritarian and genocidal dictatorship stems from the accusations made during the campaign to punish him for his justified contempt for the former British oppressors.

Director Kevin MacDonald claims he intended the film to send a message about British colonialism and the consequences of international interference in Uganda. MacDonald claims that “Amin was a Frankenstein’s monster created by the British.”

This statement still fails to recognize that Amin was impacted, like hundreds of millions of Africans, by the dehumanizing experience of growing up as a colonial subject. Amin’s opportunity for a better life rested on his decision to join the colonial army and submit himself to regular humiliation and abuse at the hands of British officers.

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that once he became president, Amin decided to return the favor when he required that the British officials bow down to him whenever they visited Uganda.

Despite MacDonald’s intentions, the film fails to address the complexity of Idi Amin’s rise to power as an African Muslim leader in an era tainted by colonialism and instead paints Africa as a continent filled with so-called bloodthirsty would-be dictators.

This long-time stereotypical depiction of Africa is as racist as Hollywood’s criteria for which performances are worthy of Oscar-level recognition for Black and other actors of color.

Forest Whitaker is an accomplished actor with a career spanning two decades. While his performance in “The Last King of Scotland” is certainly worthy of an Academy Award, it is not his only role worthy of recognition. The Academy voters, who are still overwhelmingly white, reserved their highest award for this outstanding Black actor for his portrayal of an independent African leader as a murderous despot.

It is reminiscent of the Academy’s decision to award the Oscar for best actor to Denzel Washington for his portrayal of a crooked cop in “Training Day” in 2002. Washington had been snubbed a decade earlier for his widely acclaimed portrayal of revolutionary Black Nationalist leader Malcolm X and more recently of boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter.

Racism coupled with a lack of class analysis in the film industry severely restricts the types of roles that actors of color receive recognition for. This same racism squandered the opportunity for “The Last King of Scotland” to authentically portray the extent of colonialism’s barbaric policies on a nation’s psyche and the struggle of the oppressed Ugandan people to overcome this centuries-old oppressive legacy.