March 11, 2007

"Blood Diamond" and "The Last King of Scotland

   In the last oscars, no one was surprised when Forest Whitaker won an academy award for his performance in "The Last King of Scotland". His interpretation of Idi Amin Dada had already been praised in all the film awards ceremonies worth mentioning, and his method acting was bound to inspire respect. What no one seemed to mention, however, is that although Whitaker won prizes for the "Best Actor in a Leading Role", the main part in the film actually belongs to James McAvoy. We follow his character throughout the whole story, seeing Uganda and Amin Dada through his western eyes, and the only reason the film is named a thriller is because of the suspense created by his struggles. The fact that the BAFTAS, Golden Globe Awards and Screen Actors Guild Awards chose to ignore this simply highlights the troubling idea that the film-makers put in the western character by necessity.  The story is about the rise of the dictator and the judges can obviously see that, but in the film industry they chose not to have the black African as the protagonist.

   I was even more surprised at the route "Blood Diamond" took when I saw it last night. At the climax the audience witnesses Leonardo DiCaprio leap up from a ditch amid all the explosions of an air raid, brandishing a machine-gun to all the african child soldiers as he runs heroically to save his friend. I remember frowning at  the pumping music and the majestic tracking-shot showing all the money being spent on the making of the scene.It looked and felt like an action film. 

   I am not one of those irritating people who complain about how anything they see at the cinema is either racist, homophobic or glorifies drugs. I have no problem with a film in which a well-known actor is heroically murdering child soldiers. I do find, however, that the film industry is insulting my intelligence. I am in the process of getting a society started as a charity project for a region I visited in Zambia, and any film which raises awareness of Africa's problems is of course a step in the positive direction. But why are producers so convinced that the audience will not learn from a film that focuses on the local populations? In "The Constant Gardener" the fact that the main couple were europeans was an important part of the story, but in "Blood Diamond" and "The Last King of Scotland" the presence of the white characters was completely unnecessary.

   Without Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Connelly, Edward Zick's work would have been the story of a father trying to retrieve his son, and that focus would have given the film a stronger narrative. The reason "Hotel Rwanda" is superior to all the films Ive mentioned so far is that it concentrates on the feeling of urgency and raw fear as the main character tries to protect his family, while the romanticism of "Blood Diamond" makes it a pure product of Hollywood. The morality of the production comes not from the exploration of the problems of the third world, but from the rich white protagonist's redemptive character arch. And this is also precisely the case in "The Last King of Scotland".

    Im sure everyone involved in making these films felt as if they were doing something positive, something good for humanity. And it is true, everyone coming out of the cinema will be so moved by DiCaprio and James MacAvoy's journey that they will want the world to change. What the oscars should be celebrating next year, however, is any film that shows the audience how to change it, what Africa's exact problems are and why there is so little improvement.


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