DVD Review: The Last King of Scotland, Part II

(This is the second part of a review about the DVD release of "The Last King of Scotland," by reviewer Hilary Crowe. Please see Part I, to begin.)

This rollercoaster ride around the dictator’s frayed nerves and government is led by Nicolas Garrigan (James McAvoy). Naïve, restless, and fresh out of med school, he spins a globe looking for an adventure, but never dreamt of the one that finds him when he is hand-picked, literally, as Idi Amin’s personal physician after treating Amin’s sprained wrist. Amin (Forest Whitaker) is injured after the presidential motorcade hits a cow. Taking the dictator’s gun, Garrigan puts the cow out of its misery. Amin reads the bloody, brazen move to mean Garrigan is fearless, and decides he – and his Scottish heritage – is worthy of respect. Garrigan, in turn, is seduced by the charisma, power, and affection displayed by Amin, blinded by rose-colored glasses and propelled deeper into the dictator’s inner circle of hell, so much so that the media calls him Amin’s “white monkey.”

“Nicolas, you are my closest advisor,” Whitaker croons in a perfect accent. Garrigan now has blood on is hands, too, and it’s not the healing kind.

Many critics think Garrigan to be weak, evidence McAvoy has done one hell of a job despite the unjust absence of Whitaker-worthy accolades. You aren’t supposed to like him. The limp-wristed playboy Garrigan is just as detestable as Amin, if not more so. Garrigan clearly represents white colonialism (duh), usurping Ugandan women and resources while turning a blind eye to the atrocities from a comfortable distance. It is an allegory about the interface of divergent cultures, the bastardization of the Western world in Africa. Dashiki-clad subjects serenade Amin’s entourage with “Loch Lomond,” while the dictator sits in a kilt and watches, elated. After he finds his wife has been unfaithful, Amin and his henchman sit dazed in front of Deep Throat, asking Garrigan if such an anatomical anomaly is possible, to which he replies “All aberrations of nature are possible,” a statement that is all-too relevant on all of the film’s many levels. The absurdity of it all is laughable, but this is no laughing matter. Amin is as much a hapless comedian as he is an unscrupulous dictator, whose wishes for an independent, strong, black Uganda are foiled by his roots in colonial and Western culture, his English loyalties replaced with affections for fellow freedom-fighting Scotland.

That said, the main complaint of viewers and reviewers is that white people seem to need other white people to make them care about the turmoil in Africa, and how it is so tragic that the real story of the 300,000 Amin killed is obscured by the flowering relationship between the madman, his doctor, and the collateral human damage. But that’s not the aim of the movie or its novel basis – it’s no biopic. It’s fiction, drama: meant to show what havoc the naïve who are drunk on power and excess are capable of ravaging, even if their intentions are not ill.

If you wanted another Hotel Rwanda, this isn’t it. As the subject of brutal African regimes slowly but steadily gains international attention, the film captures what is so obvious it is often overlooked: the African problem is not a simple matter of black and white. How do these dictators like Amin come to power to such fanfare, only to turn those smiles upside down? Such an issue is as duplicitous and dynamic as the dictator himself. Actions may speak louder than words, but even when Amin and his “white monkey” Garrigan act foolish, there’s more depth of thought than meets the eye. Smart and brilliantly brought to life, The Last King of Scotland is not to be missed.

(To read this entry from the beginning, please see Part I.)

(Publicity photo of The Last King of Scotland from Fox Searchlight Pictures. In the film, Forest Whitaker (center) stars as Idi Amin; he's flanked by, among others, James McAvoy (left) who plays Nicolas Garrigan. To see a trailer for the film, please check below.)

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