Thursday, March 01, 2007

(yet another) Last King of Scotland

I just saw "The Last King of Scotland", the film about Idi Amin (starring Forrest Whittaker). Although I think that Whittaker's performance was impressive, I am slightly disturbed by a recent trend in filmmaking that portrays "African conflicts" in a reductively "nativist" kind of way.

Here's my problem-- in the recent films I have seen about South Africa ("In My Country" and "Catch a Fire"), Uganda ("Last King of Scotland") and Rwanda ("Hotel Rwanda"), the filmmakers seem to make very little effort to explain the contours of the political conflicts they are representing, and are happy instead to simply portray a very complicated piece of history as a kind of gruesome and barbarian historical anomaly. Clearly it is the case that the genocide in Rwanda, South African apartheid, and the Amin administration were brutal regimes characterized by gross violations of human rights, but they did not occur in a vaccuum. Why do filmmakers think that their viewers are incpable of understanding the subtleties of these conflicts? Or, what is more likely, why do fimmakers so quickly resort to representing African political affairs in nativist terms and images? Is is because the Western audiences (to whom these films are clearly marketed) are unwilling or unable to conceive of African political conflict as something more than just black people resorting to the "essential" tendencies of their racial heritage?

It should go without saying, I hope, that the political conflicts of Africa are not, categorically, more brutal or inhumane that the political conflicts of the West. To the extent that inhumanity can be understood at all, it is usually represented in film (even if not justified) as deeply contextualized when it is in reference to Western political affairs. (Think of "Saving Private Ryan," or even "Deerhunter" for that matter.) We seem to be able to understand, in reference to our own political conflicts, that horrible conditions make possible horrible actions. But in the recent films about African conflicts, the message I get is that horrible people make possible horrible actions, especially if those people are black or, if they are white, have been resigned to living in the God-forsaken depths of the "Dark Continent."

What's up with that?

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