Minstrelsy and mythic appetites: The last king of scotland's heart of darkness in the jubilee year of african independence

Ricardo Guthrie

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

1 Scopus citations


The stunning success of The Last King of Scotland (2006)-a fictional biopic starring acclaimed African American actor Forest Whitaker, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin-perhaps represents a paradigm shift in how films "based on real events" can affect audiences' geopolitical sensibilities, and vice versa. The Hollywood film industry continually feeds America's appetite for mythic stories set in exotic locales (in this case, Uganda during the heady 1970s) while recycling narratives that reinforce its own "heart of darkness."1 Rather than summoning culturalhistorical themes that illuminate the rich complexities of Afro-Diasporic peoples while exploding the myth of Africa as a site for exorcising shame, fear, and loathing, the film instead focuses on the image of an African madman who acclaims Western sensibilities (Amin extols the virtues of the Scottish people and strikes up a problematic friendship with a Scottish physician) while slaughtering his own kinsmen in fits of paranoia. The fictional story line, based on Giles Foden's novel, attempts to create multidimensional characterizations of Amin. We must ask, however, what is the significance of this dictator's pseudobiography airing in 2006-the year before Ghana, the first sub-Saharan African colony to achieve independence, prepared to celebrate fifty years of nationhood? Perhaps it's because there's an audience, and appetite, for such stories set in Africa, as Whitaker himself proclaimed in an interview: "There is a deep, mythical quality sometimes to the stories. . . . They become like some mythic parable somebody would tell or write in some book that children would read in a thousand years from now" (Germain 2006). But Whitaker was concerned with stories about African liberators such as Stephen Biko or Nelson Mandela, not Idi Amin, and there's the rub: Why can't Hollywood tell stories that are full of the richness and complexities of African liberation and independence that reflect global interactions, collaborations, and transnational implications? A film is not a history book, one might argue, and The Last King of Scotland is a fictionalized story, not "real" history. According to Gabriel (1995), the purpose of Hollywood films is, first and foremost, to produce entertainment that will turn a profit. Movie genres-action, horror, romance, mystery, westerns, and thrillers-attract audiences and consuming publics in order to maximize profits. Such Hollywood genres are particularly suited for films set in Africa because they can be marketed to viewers who may never set foot there. Then what's at stake, if it's only a film or a popular, fictionalized adaptation of a moment in history? "Struggles over meaning" in popular culture "are also struggles over resources," as Lipsitz reminds us: "They arbitrate what is permitted and what is forbidden; they help determine who will be included and who will be excluded; they influence who gets to speak and who gets silenced" (1990, 632). And in the realm of postcolonial filmic reality, dictators, criminals, smugglers, and madmen get center stage while liberators and revolutionaries are silenced and resources made scarce for films highlighting freedom and independence instead of paternalism and dependence (Martin 1995). As Cameron (1994) notes, authenticity in such films is a manufactured commodity designed to buttress elements of action, plot, character, and myth. If that's all The Last King of Scotland represents, then its appeal to certain audiences would be understandable, but there was a disproportionate receptiveness that exceeded all expectations. In many ways, the narrative logic of Last King appears to have attracted audiences seeking comprehension of a post-Cold War reality. But Last King does something more: it propels a cultural ethos resurrected from the days of colonialism and empire, while updating twenty-first-century impulses of Western imperialists (and fading imperialists such as Great Britain) seeking justification for intervention around the world. For that matter, Last King offers easy vindication for Western political intervention globally, and that version of events offers a certain appeal to Western moviegoers who approve of those interventions. That version is also very marketable. The Last King of Scotland, therefore, provides a unique vehicle for comprehending ways in which imperialism on film reinscribes powerful themes of the past, while setting the stage for new empires of the present. Last King updates the spectacle of Hollywood in Africa and recycles imperialist cultural logics to fit a changing, neoconservative post-Cold War reality. The questions of empire, intervention, and humanitarian assistance are conflicted and contradictory-giving rise to the political-cultural intrigue that drives Last King's plotline, and which confounds attempts to combine history, biography, and filmic reality. Last King appears to deftly maneuver between these three aspects under the guise of a Conradian heart of darkness formula. It seems to attack British imperialism, while raising disturbing questions about postindependence Africa-but, rather than refuting imperialist interventions, it instead provides a rationale for using empire to settle old scores and align new political configurations. In addition, rather than simply reinvigorating Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness story line, Last King focuses on a Scotsman who goes to Africa and discovers the eccentric, charismatic, but violent Idi Amin-a fellow postcolonial subject who shares his distaste for British imperialists. The film updates the story with very flawed postcolonial protagonists who attempt to challenge neocolonialism. Further, by casting an American Black actor as Idi Amin, Last King raises unsettling issues about Black identity, Afro-Diasporic sentiment, and racial ventriloquism that harks back to Hollywood's days of blackface minstrelsy- only this time portrayed by an African American actor (Saxton 1990). The desire to create an international film exploring British imperialism, African independence, and Afro-Diasporic identification, helps create a cultural product heralded as "The Emperor Jones in Africa"-linking Last King with the 1920s Eugene O'Neill play, which starred Paul Robeson as a savage Caribbean dictator. The resurrection of racial regimes to unite a fictive white imaginary through film is a daunting yet powerful project, as Robinson (2007) examined in pre-World War II American films. He provides compelling evidence of the utility of film as a venue for bolstering regimes of race before 1945 and the modern quest for African independence. In this context, Last King is a test case for revitalizing race concerns against the backdrop of post- Cold War neoconservatism. These thematic elements-postcolonial subjectivity and global Afro-Diasporic identification in the neocon moment-are major concerns. I will also address the historical significance of African independence, particularly the story of Kwame Nkrumah and Ghana-and how Nkrumah's Pan-Africanist struggle against Western imperialism represents a complex narrative of Afro-Diasporic freedom and the problematic quest for leadership in postcolonial Africa.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationHollywood's Africa after 1994
PublisherOhio University Press
Number of pages15
ISBN (Print)9780821420157
StatePublished - 2012

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Arts and Humanities


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