Driving Miss Daisy it ain’t. The Last King of Scotland, I mean, with which I finally caught up last night at the local movie house. Like Downfall before it, this portrait of a dictator breaks with the conventions of Hollywood melodrama by challenging us to discard with the convenient absolutes of good and evil, the very binaries that clarify much but explain so little. Director Kevin Macdonald—whose next project, a documentary promisingly titled My Enemy’s Enemy, will deal with Nazi Germany and feature archival footage of Adolf Hitler—does not presume to judge his subject, Idi Amin, but to show or suggest the workings of his mind, his joys, sorrows, and fears.
In traditional Western storytelling, be it for stage or radio, for big screen or small, sketches of a certain enemy “other” are often crudely drawn for the sake of ready identification; the resulting picture is not that of an ostensibly evil person, but of evil personified. It is the very stuff of satire and sensational melodrama in which the alleged shortcomings of a dangerous individual may be exposed or playfully defused for the purpose of stirring an apathetic populace or boosting the morale of those stifled by terror. Historical portraits or caricatures of villainy rarely dare to encourage empathy and thus avoid to render their subjects human; they shun any approach suggestive of naturalism—the attempt at a serious and sincere depiction of what is.
Then again, what is? No matter how convinced I was by Forest Whitaker’s deservedly Oscar-nominated performance, I did not once think of The Last King as anything other than a work of fiction, a response largely owing to a lack of knowledge about the historical figure depicted, the culture represented, and the events on which it is based—the kind of ignorance I might pass off as skepticism if I were not hoping to achieve some semblance of naturalism in these soundings of my mind. Years of schooling and pop cultural exposure seem to have made it difficult for me to think of history as anything I sense to be reality. By virtue of seeming real, Whitaker’s Amin became a fiction to me.
My own reservations and prejudices aside, Macdonald’s film raises questions about what, beyond verifiable data, the records that have not been lost or suppressed, should make it into our histories, those stories we (or those acting on our or someone else’s behalf) construct out of scraps of documented facts upon which historians impose the comforting logic of causality. Like All the King’s Men, The Last King documents the corruption of power; yet it is also a corruption of documents. The figure of the young Scottish doctor, through the interaction with whom Amin’s personality is being revealed (for the cinema has to tell by showing), does much to render suspect the historicity of the drama, suspicions that even the facts and figures appended to the film after the conclusion of its narrative cannot lay to rest.
After all, how are we to know what heart lurks in the evil of men? What does it mean to accept that historical figures like Hitler or Idi Amin were thinking, feeling men rather than destructive forces? Perhaps we dread real people in our histories because they make us aware that, given human nature, no tools of social science can prevent us from repeating the horrors of the past.