No more egregious example exists than the execrable 1988 disaster "Mississippi Burning" in which, in a jaw-dropping reversal of historical reality, the filmmakers present white FBI agents as the heroes of the civil rights struggle. (In truth, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover seethed with racism and made it a personal crusade to destroy Martin Luther King, Jr.)
Sadly, "Mississippi Burning" represents only the worst example of this racist Hollywood tradition. In spite of the unmistakable box office draw of stars like Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Will Smith, producers and directors continue to act as though white audiences won’t pay to see black actors, especially if they are telling “black” stories.
Thus, Steve Biko’s heroic but fatal struggle against South African apartheid had to be mediated through white actor Kevin Kline’s character in 1987’s "Cry Freedom," while the black crusade for voting rights had to be transformed into a story of noble white lawyers in 1996’s "Ghosts of Mississippi."
This background filled me with trepidation before I saw director Kevin Macdonald’s remarkable film "The Last King of Scotland." Drawn to the movie by actor Forest Whitaker’s charisma, I nevertheless worried that the film’s conceit, that a naïve Scottish doctor played by James McAvoy accidentally stumbles into the role of 1970s Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s chief adviser, would be one more example of black people used as props in some white filmmakers’ narcissistic psychodrama.
I couldn’t have been more pleasantly surprised. "The Last King of Scotland" directly addresses the self-absorption of Eurocentric culture. McAvoy, as the chief character Nicholas Garrigan, is no hero saving faceless, nameless black victims from themselves or from conveniently abstracted villains. A selfish, ignorant anti-hero, Garrigan wrecks havoc wherever he goes.
For all his youthful energy, Garrigan’s almost immediate sexual conquest of a Ugandan woman is ultimately ugly and colonial, as emotionally cold and exploitative as a Congo diamond mine. A similar sexual tryst at a surreal “cowboy” party thrown by Amin is less sensual than a nightmare reminiscent of the assassination scene that concludes "Apocalypse Now!"
Such scenes certainly involve a white man expropriating black womens’ bodies, but director Macdonald’s perspective is critical, not leering. McGregor’s selfishness remains front-and-center. His sexuality stems more from a desperate denial of death than an appreciation of his partners’ humanity. McGregor blusters around, too centered on his own pleasure seeking to notice (until it’s too late) how his actions have turned Uganda into a Dante-esque inferno.
Though portrayed as proudly Scottish, and therefore contemptuous of the British embassy and MI5 snoops who lurk behind Amin’s sudden rise to power, Garrigan’s clumsy intrusions into Ugandan politics mirror Britain’s colonial interventions there. Audiences are repeatedly reminded that the British enthusiastically aided Amin’s coup against Milton Obote in 1971 (and they could have added that British companies happily sold equipment to Ugandan police which were used to torture that country’s citizens, even after Amin’s hideous human rights record became widely known.)
Simon McBurney, in one of the film’s many marvelously understated performances, plays Nigel Stone, a British agent who complains that Amin “has blown up again” when the dictator murders political opponents, sounding like a disappointed parent frustrated that a just-opened Christmas gift hasn’t functioned as advertised on the package. Having placed Amin in power in order to promote British business interests, Stone then tries to manipulate McGregor into poisoning Amin, not because of any deeply felt regret about the soon-to-be 300,000 fatalities piled up by the regime but because the African dictator has become too unstable to serve British commerce.
There’s not a weak performance in the movie. Compelling throughout, McAvoy holds his own with Forest Whitaker, who in an Oscar-deserving turn provides the film’s demented emotional center. The script makes McGregor the central character but Whitaker makes this movie his own.
It is a tribute to Whitaker’s genius that someone coming into the theater knowing Amin’s crimes will find the dictator disturbingly charming and attractive. Whitaker effortlessly moves from compelling to menacing, however, so that the audience is left emotionally off-balance, feeling guilty for sympathizing with such a monster and still feeling shock at his sudden moments of sadism. Watching Whitaker, one can understand what might have lead the most discerning Ugandans to initially feel liberated and empowered by Amin’s “everyman,” anti-colonialism gospel.
The film is not without its flaws. Though Gillian Anderson, late of television’s “The X-Files,” delivers a believable British accent, it’s hard to figure out what her character contributes to the story. McGregor’s relationship with Kay Amin (one of the dictator’s many wives) strains credulity, though Kerry Washington plays the part with heartbreaking emotional depth.
Nevertheless, this film breaks with Hollywood’s ugly habit in how it treats black subjects. Macdonald has presented a chilling indictment of the West and its destruction of African peoples. The heart of darkness in this film lies not within Africa, nor even within Idi Amin, but in Western imperialism.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.