I was pleased to see Forest Whitaker win the award for Best Actor at this year’s BAFTAs. It is indeed, as the critics have said, a compelling portrayal of the dictator Idi Amin.
Remembering a few reviews of The Last King of Scotland, the principle criticism of the film was the slight incongruity of the Dr Garrigan character, a fictional Scottish doctor played by James McAvoy. Why do we need the “white man in Africa” cliche to understand Amin and his rise to power? Why indeed, did the film-makers prioritise Garrigan’s adventure? Why not just call the film Amin and centre every single scene around Whitaker?
The same charge was levelled at Blood Diamond. This time the setting is Sierra Leone, and its brutal civil war. But, what’s this? We have Leonardo DiCaprio, white and tanned, in the lead role! He plays a South African mercenary, befriending a fisherman (Djimon Hounsou) who has lost his family after an attack by the RUF. Lo and behold! DiCaprio the Action Man takes the initiative, rescuing a rare pink diamond and Hounsou’s disparate family into the bargin, before being martyred in the final scenes. How come (they say), yet another film about Africa ends up being about the white man?
In fact, I think the structure and message of Blood Diamond positively demands white characters. It is, after all, about how the global trade in diamonds exacerbates regional conflicts. “If people knew that the diamond on their finger cost someone their arm, they wouldn’t buy it” says one character.
If the white characters are present so European and American audiences “have someone to relate to” then the effect is different in the two films. Blood Diamond draws the white audience into the problem, and castigates them. By contrast, The Last King of Scotland would have been far more challenging if the central British character had been the seedy official from the High Commission (played by the delightfully odd Simon McBurney). His dialogue alludes to the fact that the rise of Amin was aided and abetted by the British… but this aspect is left unexplored. Instead, we see James McAvoy have an affair with Amin’s wife. It portrays the white man as innocent and niaive, the black man as tribal, brutal.
Last Man Standing
Speaking of role models and representation in the cinema, who can be more paradigm busting than Djimon Hounsou? Cinema has long been criticised for portraying black people in a negative light: If they are not villains, then they do tend to get killed off before the end of the film. Not Djimon, though. Against all odds, he is literally the last man left standing in both Gladiator and Blood Diamond, two very brutal films with hundred-plus body-counts.