White critics are afraid of Forest Whitaker.

Roger Ebert once mused in his take on Whitaker’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai at the absurdity of many of his peers reviewing the movie with absolute seriousness. Rather than admitting—and enjoying—the film’s silliness, they were happy to check off a list of hard facts about the movie (disheveled black man, hit man for the mob, pigeons, samurai code of honor, curious dialogue with people he meets in the park) and then move on to grading his “performance” as if they were watching a production of Othello.

Or maybe, Macbeth: I do have Whitaker’s The Last King of Scotland on my mind. Indeed, it was the news of his “performance” that drove me, compelled me, to watch the film. That news was almost inescapable and capped off with an Oscar. “See The Last King of Scotland for Whitaker!” No one told me to see it because it was a good movie—and I now think that’s no accident.

Whitaker does give a “good performance.” He studied well for the part and was convincing at all times. On the other hand, it was classic Whitaker. If one can avoid the myopic focus on “my, I do believe he is a black man” that elevates his craft to “performance,” one can easily imagine he and William Shatner studying at the same acting school. I say that with affection. Whitaker is more complex with his pauses (put to good effect in his work on The Shield), shifting tones for a powerful contrapposto. Each new beginning makes one question the words that came before.

That style, more than his physical presence, made him a perfect fit to play the Ugandan ruler, Idi Amin.

A great performance doesn’t make for a great movie on its own, however. Forest Whitaker could have been twice as good as he was and I’d still have a hard time recommending The Last King of Scotland.

Admitting that, it’s easy to see all the hype in a new light, with the wide attention for his performance almost akin to saying “he speaks so well.”

One Bruce Banter at Playahata.com tells of how Whittaker’s Oscar win was telegraphed by white critics:

http://www.playahata.com/pages/banner/lastkingofscotland.htm

But the reason he will win has nothing to do with those things mentioned, but everything to do with who he is playing. If Whitaker would have been playing Kwame Nkrumah or Patrice Lumumba, we would not even be talking about how excellent he played that part. Those historical portrayals are way too dignified for Oscar voters and Hollywood. Denzel was Oscar winner material with his roles in The Hurricane and Malcolm X but no nod, yet he received it for his character in Training Day. Idi Amin was not a dignified figure thou some may beg to differ, so Forest will have no voter conflict in who he played.

The Last King of Scotland isn’t even about Idi Amin. It’s about the sexual conquests of a young white doctor who heads to Uganda in search of adventure.

It’s not five minutes into the film when he’s had his first lay.

If you think it’s improbable that the first English-speaking woman in Uganda that he meets has to jump his bones simply because they shared a bus seat, The Last King of Scotland probably isn’t the movie for you. 88% of professional film critics at Rottentomatoes.com will disagree with you, but I think you’ll be in better company.

Indeed, the only woman who is able—if only barely—to resist the protagonist’s charms is white (and is played by Gillian Anderson); somehow black women don’t even have a chance, even though James McAvoy exudes all the virility of a mewling Pokemon in his performance. They’ll literally die to sleep with him.

While McAvoy’s fictional Nicholas Garrigan is chided in the film as being just another tourist who “came to Africa to fuck,” the audience is invited to fuck those women right along with him. Only Gillian Anderson is allowed to keep her shirt on. All the gravitas afforded to anti-colonialist rebukes like the one above is ultimately hollow: The Last King of Scotland is merely an exercise in virtuosity. From the deep colors and grand architectures of the filming to the sweeping work done by Whitaker in showing the soaring heights and diving depths of Amin’s personality, all are for the sake of entertainment.

The political messages in The Last King of Scotland are tacked on precisely so white viewers—male ones, anyway—can feel good reveling in the excitement of the atrocities they watch.

Having seen the film, I can say that I know a good deal less about Idi Amin than before: certainly, I know more in an abstract sense, but I am far less certain about what I do know. The Last King of Scotland is a fantasy of a film drawn from a fantasy of a novel. Not only are characters an amalgamation of real people and timelines are condensed, the movie saw fit to change events in Amin’s life that were actually already on tape.

John Thomason at the Orlando Weekly gives a striking account of that and a good background on the 1994 documentary, General Idi Amin Dada.

http://www.orlandoweekly.com/film/review.asp?rid=11946

Three short reviews (dissenting from the popular praise for the film) that might be of interest to those with more feminist sensibilities can be found at

http://www.indiewire.com/movies/2006/09/slaughter_rule.html

Michael Joshua Rowin:

…the rough-hewn montage sequences (one of which might be the strangest of the year—after discovering one of the president’s mutilated victims, Nicholas visits Amin and his cronies zoning out to a screening of “Deep Throat.” Amin asks, with perfect sincerity, whether it’s anatomically possible for a woman to have a clitoris there?)

And Nicolas Rapold:

A filmmaker who feels the need to jazz up a hijacking may well feel that a paranoid genocidal lunatic isn’t quite enough to hold our bovine attentions.