By Kevin O’Sullivan
I watched The Last King of Scotland again on Channel 4 on Sunday night. When I say I watched it again I mean I persevered until not even Forest Whitaker’s fantastic performance as Idi Amin could overpower the irritating plot. (For those of you not in the know: errant young Scotsman becomes doctor, runs as far away from his family as possible and, quelle Hollywood surprise, becomes chief advisor to the dictator of an East African state.) Stuck with it until I felt I had to do what all errant youths (or not-so-youths) of today do: sit, type, and add another drop to the internet ocean.
I thought first of writing a piece on the ‘real’ Idi Amin, who died in Saudi Arabia in 2003, but two things stopped me. First, Last King of Scotland actually did quite a good job (Scottish doctor/chief advisor apart) of portraying life in Amin’s Uganda. It’s pretty much all there: human flesh eating; body of dismembered wife sewn back together; utter lunacy combined with almost hilarious displays of grandeur; the unbridled corruption and paralysing fear of Amin among the Ugandan political elite; hope lost and promises broken; and the outside (British, Israeli, Libyan) interference and alliances that propped up Amin’s rule, if all painted in the broadest of brushstrokes.
And second, I didn’t want to write just another ‘horror in Africa’ story, one that ended almost thirty years ago when an increasingly disliked Amin was overthrown.Africa certainly doesn’t need us to keep telling them how bad things are. Nor do they want us to continue our assumption that ‘Africa’ is one heaving mass, that Kenyans are the same as Nigerians are the same as South Africans.
But something still irked me about The Last King of Scotland, something that returned me to the subject three days later. And then it struck me: it was those unspoken Hollywood rules for making a film about Africa’s past, the ones, from African Queen to Blood Diamond, that reduce Africa to that heaving mass, that rule out complexity and subtlety in our understanding of life and history on the continent. They read, loosely, as follows:
1. Have a white man and/or woman as the central character. Western audiences will never be able to understand anything else.
2. Allow that character either to (a) save the life of a close African companion (Leonardo di Caprio in Blood Diamond), (b) rise from nowhere to advise an entire African country with a CV consisting of little more than an MD and a cheeky grin (Last King of Scotland) or (c) both of the above.
3. If you do have a black man in the lead role, be sure that it’s a (fairly) major Hollywood actor, one that people have seen before, à la Don Cheadle in Hotel Rwanda.
4. Include some jungle scenes. That’ll frighten them.
5. Portray Africans as miserable, impoverished, starved and battered by years of war and torment, though this is one aspect of African life that The Last King of Scotland got right. And The Constant Gardener, the latter mainly because of Fernando Meirelles’s style of splicing footage from Nairobi’s slums into the footage.
So what makes a good movie about Africa? Putting Africans and African history to the centre for a start. What Hotel Rwanda, hindered by Hollywood sheen, tries to do but falls short of, is what Shooting Dogs achieves: the show of bare humanity that grabs you, drags you in, confuses your morals but won’t let you go. The potential pitfall of fixing the story on an aging Catholic priest is negated by a brilliant performance by John Hurt and the telling comment of a BBC news reporter: ‘We’re all selfish people in the end.’
The good, if not quite great, Indigènes does it too. It drags us, the western audience, into a world we’re utterly unprepared for, placing us amongst a group of Muslim soldiers from the Maghreb fighting to free southern France at the end of the second world war. Indigènes caused such a storm in France that it forced a re-visit of the country’s military pension laws.
But wait. Maybe, in the end, this isn’t an African thing at all. Maybe it’s just a matter of the medium and the message. Give the audience what they know/what they think they know, and they’ll be happier. Let them think everything might turn out alright because of something they (as a society) have done and they’ll have a clearer conscience (you can see I hate the very end of The Constant Gardener). I’ll bet someone could write a similar set of rules for films about Irish history. That’s entertainment, after all.