Members of some critics group (The National Board of Review? Broadcast Film Critics Association?), including Gold Derby’s Tom O’Neil, have clearly been listening to the hype from Toronto, because they traipsed into a screening where Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland was playing like zombies following a trail of breadcrumbs to a hungry old witch’s house. In this case, the house was a racist one, and inside it lived a big, sweaty, angry black man named Idi Amin, Uganda’s fascist president from 1971 to 1979, played by Forest Whitaker with one eye (and half of another one) set on Oscar gold. A man at the screening passed a piece of paper (a scorecard, perhaps?) to his cohorts, but I couldn’t get close enough to anyone (I was, after all, hunched down close to the floor for much of the screening) to see what was written on them. Here’s a guess: “The Last King of Scotland makes me think of (a) The Constant Gardener, (b) Misery, (c) Amos ’N’ Andy, or (d) All of the above.” This godawful film is a vile transparency—approximating through its fictional lead character (a white doctor who spins a globe, closes his eyes, and plops his finger on Uganda—yaaaaaaaaaaay!) what it might be like for, well, members of The National Board of Review to be air dropped into the middle of Africa. It’s in Uganda that Nicholas (James McAvoy) befriends Idi Amin and becomes his personal physician, which mostly consists of helping (no joke) the dictator release a whirlwind of gas from his lower intestines. Poor Whitaker has nothing to work with here, asked only to wobble into frame intermittingly and scare the shit out of everyone. Alas, the focus of the film, as in The Constant Gardener, is the liberal quilt and romantic troubles of its white characters: In this case, Nicholas learns that his best bud is none too nice but nonetheless decides to sleep with one of the dictator’s wives. In case you don’t get the point that Nicholas is martyring himself for Uganda, there’s a horrible little scene in the film where Idi Amin’s cronies stick hooks through the young man’s chest and hang him from the ceiling! And for the NBR crowd, the film ends with cute archival footage of the real Idi Amin that serves no function other than to help Oscar hounds determine if Whitaker’s approximation of the dictator’s physical essence was spot on. The stench of the film is overwhelming, signaling the start of the Oscar season.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.