The Disintegration and Reclamation of Indigenous Identity in America (from the archives: 12.13.2006)
European settlers, civilized folk with a strong avarice for economic and territorial affluence in the New World, fought a dark and dangerous indigenous people for nearly three centuries after the arrival of renowned explorer Christopher Columbus. Offerings of Indian Territory were extended in an attempt to peacefully divide the land among both races, but the Indians resisted and violent battles ensued. Great American heroes were born out of such battles and yet benevolence prevailed as Americans generously offered gifts of English language and Christian religion to civilize the remaining savages. Unable to achieve the desired effect, the Indians have remained an unresolved problem for America, a country fondly referred to by its thriving citizens as ?land of the free and home of the brave.?
Indigenous history reveals a very different story, one of the invasion and occupation of the Great Turtle Island, genocide of the original island people, and for those few remaining, ethnic cleansing through assimilation. Forced to abandon their native identities and adopt European-American culture, indigenous people have been coerced to submit to an occupying force and are further marginalized by the power of the English language. In both its euphemistic and discriminatory capacity, English has bound Native Americans to a history and identity which is not their own, and in a way their own language could never have betrayed them.
To say these stories possess the dramatic elements of a theatrical production is a valid argument as it has already been demonstrated. The Euro-American version of history, much like Prospero?s narrative in Shakespeare?s The Tempest, offers a triumphant telling of European colonization. As Paul Brown remarks in ??This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine?: The Tempest and the Discourse of Colonialism,? Prospero calls to his various listeners ?and invites them to recognize themselves as subjects of his discourse, as beneficiaries of his civil largess? (P. Brown 218). Shakespeare, understanding the usurping power of Europe in America, calls attention to Prospero?s mastery of language as power of ?civility? over ?savagery.? Interestingly, the English language, as used to strip indigenous people of their culture, eventually empowered them to address their oppressors and reclaim what is left of their Native American identity. By recording the struggles they have faced, Indians have elevated themselves far beyond mere ?linguistic subjects of the master language? (P. Brown 220).
Historically, the most powerful linguistic tool employed by expansionists was the euphemistic term “Manifest Destiny.” This concept legitimized American advances into territory already inhabited by Mexicans and American Indians. As Dee Brown describes in Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, “To justify ? breaches of the ?permanent Indian frontier,? the policy makers in Washington invented Manifest Destiny ?The Europeans and all their descendants were ordained by destiny to rule all of America. They were the dominant race? (8). While Americans were purportedly fated by God to expand in the name of their great experiment of liberty, ironically, this liberty was not meant for all people. Indians were rounded up while soldiers ?concentrated them into camps? (D. Brown 7), allowing for American retrieval of Appalachian gold. Brown?s naming of a recognized dominant race indicates the point at which Indians became aware of two choices. They could either fight to retain the freedom of their land or submit to relocation, making way for the American harvest of natural resources with the promise of provisions in return. When Little Crow, chief of the Mdewkanton Santee, toured the rapid developing eastern cities, he ?was convinced that the power of the United States could not be resisted? (D. Brown 9), and yet he was ?determined to oppose any further surrender of their lands? (D. Brown 9). Black Kettle, leader of the Cheyenne, trusted the American offer of provisions as payment for his lands and relocated to ensure tribal survival. Black Kettle was killed on a reservation along side 103 fellow Indians in an attack of betrayal by American soldiers. Manifest Destiny was clearing the way and ?like the antelope and the buffalo, the ranks of the proud Cheyenne were thinning to extinction? (D. Brown 174). By the late 1950?s only the terms had changed. Leonard Peltier, in Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance, describes ?the most feared words in our vocabulary: ?termination? and ?relocation.? ? To us, those words were an assault on our very existence? (Peltier 80), as was the FBI term ?neutralization.?
Another effective tactic employed by American colonists was dysphemism, linguistically painting a damaging picture of indigenous culture. ?Savage? and ?heathen? were common terms associated with Indian people regardless of the observation Christopher Columbus had made, ?So tractable, so peaceable, are these people? (D. Brown 1). During the winter of 1868, ?In his official report of victory over the ?savage butchers? and ?savage bands of cruel marauders,? General Sheridan rejoiced? (D. Brown 169) in what could be considered his own savage slaughter, although he didn?t label himself as such. Placing the words into written military record simply reinforced a long standing stereotype already in place. Still, the lasting effects of his influence are evident in Sheridan?s most famous spoken words, ?The only good Indians I ever saw were dead? (D. Brown 171) which was ?honed into the American aphorism The only good Indian is a dead Indian? (D. Brown 172). Opposition to this type of attack on the Indians proved futile as only victory mattered to the government. When ?white men who had known and liked Black Kettle ? attacked Sheridan?s war policy, ? Sheridan brushed them aside as ? ?aiders and abettors? of savages who murdered without mercy? (D. Brown 170).
Sheridan proved quite influential in popular American belief. This same accusation of ?aiding and abetting? savages was bestowed upon Leonard Peltier more than one hundred years later. He has resided in prison since 1976 with no substantial evidence supporting murder charges for the deaths of two FBI agents at the Pine Ridge Reservation. Considered a political prisoner by many, he is suspected to be the scapegoat for a failed attempt by the FBI to exterminate more Indians, clearing the way to the reservation?s Uranium enriched soil. Former Attorney General and Peltier?s defense attorney, Ramsey Clark, in his preface to Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance says, ?There?s no question but that our own government was generating violence against traditional Indians at Pine Ridge at that time as a means of control and domination, some believe on behalf of energy interests? (Peltier xvii). Peltier himself says, ?I shot only in self defense ? I wasn?t trying to take lives but to save lives ? of a defenseless group of Indian people. That?s the only ?aiding and abetting? I did that day? (Peltier 170). Peltier has become the symbol of ?an Indian who dared to stand up to defend his people? (Peltier 14), his story bearing strong resemblance to early Indian warriors who rallied against oppression for the health and well being of their tribes. For this reason, he and they share the charge of aiding and abetting, although this phrase is no longer as damaging to Peltier as is a new legal term. ?So simple an act by the courts as changing my ?consecutive? sentences to ?concurrent? sentences would give me my freedom? (Peltier 171), a poignant example of bondage through language. Prison guards who attempted to cage Peltier?s spirit as well as his body often used degradation for provocation, talking about ?how stupid and filthy Indian people were, about how ugly our women were and how they had such loose morals, about how our children were ?defectives? and should be rounded up and shot like stray dogs? (Peltier 146). Peltier returned only his strength of silence.
This constant labeling was a large part of the language that Americans insisted was superior as they stripped Indian children of their native tongue. In 1884, Gertrude Simmons Bonnin ?attended White?s Indiana Manual Labor Institute in Wabash, Indiana where she experienced humiliation and insensitive treatment? (Fetterley 532). She would ?actively test the chains which tightly bound [her] individuality like a mummy for burial? (Fetterley 555). Bonnin?s mention of burial is telling as Americans attempted to assimilate the Indian children, a process in which much of their culture became dead to them. In 1953, Peltier attended the Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school in Wahpeton, North Dakota. He, like Bonnin, was forbidden to speak anything but English without the consequence of a beating. ?Still, we did. We?d sneak behind the building the way kids today sneak out to smoke behind the school, and we?d talk Indian to each other? (Peltier 78). Indian language, the connection it embodied to the Earth and to others, became contraband, criminalized for decades.
During their Americanization, Bonnin and Peltier found themselves ?drawn to both cultures ? spread eagle between them? nearly torn apart by the conflicts and contradictions between the two? (Peltier 79). Claiming his individual identity, Leonard embraced each name he was given. He is prideful of his connection with French fur hunters through Peltier and recognizes Leonard for its meaning of lion-hearted. His Indian names include Wind Chases the Sun, symbolic of freedom, and He Leads the People, a call to action. The Christian and American labels, which can be interpreted as an act of assimilation, are respectfully declined as Peltier says of his indigenous identity, ?I am a native of Great Turtle Island ? Our sacred land is under occupation and we are now all prisoners? (63). Bonnin, in discarding her white American names, gave ?herself her own tribal name, Zitkala-s?, which means Red Bird? (Fetterley 532). This identification provided a solid base from which all other thought flowed for each author.
A?focus on connection?between Indian people is what inspired the English writings of Dee Brown, Leonard Peltier and Zitkala-s?. Dee Brown reached back through the past collecting sources of forgotten oral history to ?fashion a narrative of the conquest of the American West as the victims experienced it, using their own words when possible? (D. Brown xviii). Hoping that these words have not been dulled, Brown explains that ?we rarely know the full power of words, in print or spoken? (D. Brown xvi). The number of books sold is testament to the clarity of the words? sharp truth. Peltier is compelled to join his story with Brown?s history because ?speaking out is my first duty, my first obligation to myself and to my people? (Peltier 9) and ?Only when I identify with my people do I cease being a mere statistic, a meaningless number, and become a human being? (Peltier 43). Peltier, in particular, is most separated from his people behind prison walls. In writing, he is able to break free like Wind Chases the Sun. Combining her award winning mastery of oratory skills stemming from Indian tradition, along with her American English writing skills, Zitkala-s? publishes accounts of her childhood for “Atlantic Monthly”, providing a realistic and softer presentation of Indian family life and criticism of assimilation practices. Her regionalist ?desire to tell Indian legends and stories in an Indian voice ? in written English ? may have created an intolerable opposition to the oral story telling tradition she hoped to ?transplant?? (Fetterley 534). Caught somewhere between Indian and white society, her return to advocacy, or ?life as a reformer may indicate that the price she paid for attaining the language? was the loss of place? (Fetterley 534). Still, her struggle is documented and what culture could be preserved is.
People of indigenous descent have joined in a great discourse with traditional white American history. Their tale, after centuries of struggle, has just recently reached a greater audience with a fairly new possession of writing skills within a much longer history of oral culture. The English language, which originally attempts to bind them, is used to set them free because people, not the language itself, defines cultures as inclusive or other. Through their history, novels and poems, each author extends an invitation to a middle ground with no retaliation for the crimes committed against their people. As Shakespeare?s Prospero eventually learns, ?The rarer action is in virtue than in vengeance.? (Shakespeare 75, 28)
Shakespeare, William, et al. The Tempest Ed. Gerald Graff and James Phelan. William Shakespeare, The Tempest; A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin?s, 2000, 10-87
Brown, Paul. ?This Thing of Darkness I Acknowledge Mine?; The Tempest as the Discourse of Colonialism? William Shakespeare, The Tempest; A Case Study in Critical Controversy, Boston: Bedford/St. Martin?s, 2000, 205-229
Peltier, Leonard. Prison Writings: My Life is My Sun Dance. New York: St. Martins Griffin, 1999.
Fetterly, Judith and Marjorie Pryse, eds. American Women Regionalists 1850-1910. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1995.
Brown, Dee. Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001.
Postmodern Realities in the Film The Last King of Scotland
To examine Kevin MacDonald?s The Last King of Scotland, a 2006 film based on the 1998 novel of the same name by Giles Foden, is to explore the implications of historiographic metafiction?as well as its limitations. This film, in particular, offers an interesting vantage point having been produced for Western society while simultaneously popular within Uganda. To reach some determinations, I will begin by addressing the ways in which fictional Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, helps to reveal the problematic Western representation of Uganda?s former president, Idi Amin, a dictator known as the Butcher of Africa during his rule from 1970-1979. I will also examine the repercussions of Garrigan?s insertion into the story and the ways in which his presence impacts the Ugandan nation?s sense of history. By doing so, I intend to make a case for the ethical handling of postmodern art in order to avoid further Western colonization.
This film?s popularity in Uganda is undeniable, as is the reason for it. According to the New York Times World Africa video, ?The Last King of Scotland Opens in Uganda? by Jeffrey Gettleman, nationwide accessibility to the DVD had been prevalent prior to the official release thanks to the influx of pirated DVDs from the Chinese underground. For the equivalent of 20 cents, as opposed to the inaccessible $5 admission to Uganda?s only theater, masses of people have continued to file into small huts lined with wooden benches to see their history (Gettlemen). National interest signals the grand scale of a Western cultural impact upon this African nation and the social effects are important to explore in order to avoid future erasure of Uganda?s historical heritage.
The reason for this film?s popularity is the disparity of historical knowledge that spans the generations. Seemingly not addressed for the youth by their education system, it appears that Ugandans are using this film to fill in their historical gaps, many referring to the ability for children to learn about their country (Capturing Idi Amin). According to the Washington Post article, ?In Uganda, ?Last King of Scotland? Generates Blend of Pride and Pain Crowds Flock to Oscar-Honored Film About Idi Amin,? Timberg explains why this film is so important to them:
For Ugandans too young to have clear memories of Amin?s reign, ?The Last King of Scotland? gave them a welcome dose of insight into their own national history… After seeing the movie, said Alice Mwesigwa, 32, ?it was, ?Wow, this is real.? (Timberg)
Anyone over twenty remembers Amin in some way. Mwesigwa has her own experience to compare with the film and comes to an interesting determination about reality. But is this real? Does this film constitute Uganda?s history? The answer to that question is not so clear.
Reference to the story as ?real? is problematic in that?certain elements of the story are obviously not real. While contamination of reality is inherent in any narrative, this particular?process begins with the novel. In the interview ?Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland? conducted by BoldType, the English author (who spent a portion of his early life in Africa) is asked whether his portrait of Amin is based on ?research, memory, imagination, or a combination of all three.? Foden answers:
All three, but trying to keep the research at bay was a problem. I kept discovering these amazing things about Amin which I wanted to put in the book. This was disturbing, as I felt like I was being ?dictated? to, or suffering the kind of demonic possession that Amin believed existed. Still, I guess I must have pulled through: mainly I tried to hang onto to the idea that this was a story. I wanted to make people turn the page. (Boldtype)
Foden embraces the stereotypical ideas surrounding the dictator, those of his disturbing behavior and belief in demonic possession, and applies them to the research process itself, as if the unearthing of facts is somehow unearthing Amin?s power and forcing Foden?s hand in what to write. This interpretation reveals the lens through which Foden performed his research, indicating his own biased making of meaning through his processing of facts. Foden also reminds us that his novel is?ultimately a story designed to sell and entertain, a process that allows him to distill Amin?s?many advisors down to the fictional Dr. Garrigan. Screenwriters further distill Foden?s entire novel down to a screenplay where the collective influence of the director, producers, actors and editors departs from the novel and adds their own impact to the film.
When Ugandan viewers make meaning of the final product based on their own cultural experience, they seem to confuse the film The Last King of Scotland with history and reality. This confusion is understandable and reflects the concerns of theorist Frederic Jameson. As stated in Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism:
The new spatial logic of the simulacrum can now be expected to have a momentous effect on what used to be historical time. The past is thereby itself modified… the past as ?referent? finds itself gradually bracketed, and then effaced altogether, leaving us with nothing but texts. (Jameson, 18)
Jameson blames the postmodern, in this case historiographic metafiction, as?having foregone the signposts that had traditionally signaled the difference between?fiction and reality. Furthermore, Jameson would argue that the filmmakers are referring to a history that never happened, a simulacrum, a copy with no original. History has been replaced by the likeness of history.
In response to Jameson?s disapproval, one must question whose telling of history gets privilege. History has generally been the tale of the victor or dominant culture. Theorist Linda Hutcheon in The Politics of Postmodernism offers an alternative position in relation to Jameson?s argument:
Such a clashing of various possible discourses of narrative representation is one way of signaling the postmodern use and abuse of convention that works to de-doxify any sense of the seamlessness of the join between the natural and the cultural, the world and the text, thereby making us aware of the irreducible ideological nature of every representation – of past or present… postmodern fiction does not, however disconnect itself from history or the world. It foregrounds and thus contests the conventionality and unacknowledged ideology of the assumption of seamlessness and asks its readers to question the processes by which we represent ourselves and our world to ourselves and to become aware of the means by which we represent ourselves and construct?. (Hutcheon, 51)
Although the business of reality and historicity appears convoluted up to this point, to apply Hutcheon?s theoretical definition of historiographic metafiction allows for the elevation of the fictional Dr. Garrigan to the status of a useful tool used to explore the multi-faceted Amin and allowing for new interpretations. James MacEvoy who plays Garrigan says of his role:
This film is not just about Idi. It?s not just about Uganda. It?s about the way that Britain, and maybe the rest of the world… looked at Uganda because I?m very much Britain?s looking glass in the film? (MacEvoy, Capturing Idi Amin).
MacEvoy, through his character, reflects back the full spectrum of how the British government has played a part in Amin?s dictatorship. Garrigan has access to Amin in ways that Amin?s friends, family, government, subjects and the international community never have. Many individuals saw only the side that Amin wanted them to see. The British media saw only what they wanted. Garrigan sees all.
The most widespread information about Amin?s dictatorship consists of a collage of stereotypes. Jon Snow, a well known journalist in the United Kingdom with former access to Amin says:
In the early 1970?s there was still a lot of racism about and I think Amin appealed to a racist stereotype of Africa. If he hadn?t existed we would have had to invent him. He was a perfect kind of larger than life, ogreous, you, know, people eating monster of a dictator.? (Snow, Capturing Idi Amin)
The problem with this statement is that Amin was not always perceived as a ?monster of a dictator.? In fact, he began as a loyal soldier of Britain, escalating in status from mess hall duty to commander and eventually president. He was initially known as a charismatic and gregarious man by the British government. So what brought about the change? If the movie teaches us anything new about Amin, it is that he was largely invented by the media through a dance of push and push-back.
MacDonald, Whitaker and McAvoy met with journalist Jon Snow to better understand Amin?s relationship with the press. As MacDonald recalls from their interview:
[Jon] had got to know Amin very well when he was a young journalist? he talked very interestingly about how Amin had seduced him, how he had seduced all the press corps. So even when people went to Amin to ask tough questions, to say ?I?m going to find out what?s really going on in this country? I?m going to put him on the spot about his murders that we?ve heard about,? they would come away laughing. They would come away feeling that Amin was a decent guy. He was funny, and also the news desks back home would be saying, ?Give us more of that footage of Amin dancing, or footage of Amin in his kilt. We love that. It?s so funny.? And Jon Snow says that he still feels guilty about that, that the press betrayed Uganda or let them down, at the very least. (MacDonald, DVD Commentary)
At the very least, the press failed to represent an accurate portrayal of Amin?s wrath and fury but that is not the least of it. Because the media played a significant role in suppressing all but Amin?s folly, they essentially created the caricature he had become and drew a stereotypical shield of protection around a madman?s murderous activities. This stereotype became a veil used by Amin himself. Amin?s character became a Saturday Night Live skit. Song parodies surfaced. On the ?Sucks or Rules? website posted in November 2007, Amin?s image battles for votes against a picture of Bob?s bitch tits from Chuck Palahniuk?s contemporary film Fight Club. That this legacy of buffoonery continues today is lingering evidence of the enormous impact of 1970?s media.
This passage also reveals the reciprocal mastery of Amin?s personal representation, even at the time when his paranoia was out of control and there were international rumors surfacing about his massacre. He gave the press what they wanted and they settled for what he fed them, the ?charming fool.? While journalists had no direct hand in Amin?s slaughter, they cannot be exonerated from playing their part. Snow may feel some remorse about the veil that media cast over the truth, allowing the world to giggle throughout the massacre of an estimated 300,000 people, but he appears to have little understanding of the media?s own bloodstained pen if, in 2006, he can say that the media would have created Amin had he not existed.
Amin intentionally re-represented this stereotype repeatedly to the press, in part because his reality had become terrorized by it and, in part, because the exertion of terror at his hands had exceeded it. According to MacDonald:
Amin wore a distorted mirror reflecting back to the colonial masters in Britain what he had learned from them. He took ideas like bagpipes and kilts and imposed them into a completely inappropriate world? In some horrible way he was like a sort of puppet who has come to life. He was like a plaything of the Empire that turned around and said, ?boo.?? (MacDonald, Capturing Idi Amin)
Like Hutcheon?s example of the marionette in Lady Purple, Amin becomes the puppet of the Empire, a dually constructed reality as both the stereotype and the representation of that stereotype. In this sense Amin is himself postmodern, somewhat illusory with his multiple costumes and cultural allusions, a fractured identity representing something beyond explanation and yet harkening toward something familiar.
More than that, the very tactics the British taught him as a soldier in their colonizing army, using the power found in the barrel of a gun, are the tools Amin used to shape his own national and international identity. Which is Amin?s real identity, clown or tyrant? His is neither under the constraints of the small box of meaning he is placed within and both simultaneously. In revealing the construction of the real by the press and by Amin, we reach a new understanding that representation becomes its own reality.
In The Last King of Scotland, although Amin addressed the press with complete composure and charm, Garrigan allows us access to the extreme rage and paranoia Amin unleashes behind closed doors, as well as his genuine struggle, confusion and cries for help to his advisors. Whitaker says of researching his role of Amin through countless interviews with those who knew widely varied sides of him:
I wonder if we can look at Africa without the context of intervention? There is a schism in African history, and Amin was a big product of it? He?s not Satan? He?s not the devil. My search was to find the reasons he made the decisions that he did. (Haygood, 1)
Through Garrigan, we learn the secrets that Amin?s advisers kept while in fear of their lives during his rule. Amin felt betrayed by the British. Once embraced and empowered by the country that flat out ignored his first massacre while in their service during Uganda?s colonization, the country had finally turned its back to him at the time of Uganda?s independence. This is the information that Whitaker refers to as having fallen into ?history?s schism.? This interesting phrase implies a failure on the part of history in general, one that Garrigan?s story helps to supplement by revealing Amin as a multifaceted human being, lifting the veil from the limitations of media stereotyping and historical representation.
Although this new multifaceted representation of Amin is interesting, it does not come without a price. Regardless of the attempt to create a composite of Amin?s advisors through Garrigan, this character influences Amin?s decisions within the film and impacts storyboard situations that never actually happened. These events, in turn, fictionalize Amin?s story. Director Kevin MacDonald defends this by saying:
We have taken liberties, as the novel does and I think one of the reasons we feel happy doing that with Amin in particular is because there is something about [Amin] that is almost more fictional than it is real. You never really can pin down what the historical reality is. (MacDonald, Capturing Idi Amin)
This is Hutcheon?s point as well. One might consider this a small price to pay for the revelation of history?s limitations, and perhaps this is true in the case of the film?s attempt at respectful representation of Amin as a person. In other aspects of the film though, liberties are taken too far.
The story of Kay, one of Amin?s many wives, is as mythical and mysterious as Amin?s. Some suspect Amin killed her for being unfaithful, although, in Time Magazine?s 1977 article ?Big Daddy in Books,? Kay?s most probable story is summarized in a review of Amin?s former health minister Henry Kyemba?s novel, A State of Blood:
For once, Kyemba exonerates Amin: “I do not believe, as I first did, that Amin had a direct hand in Kay’s death.” Instead, he writes, she died during an abortion that was being performed by her lover, a doctor. Kyemba speculates that the doctor dismembered the body in an effort to hide it, but then changed his mind; he committed suicide a few hours later. When informed of his former wife’s death, Amin requested that the body be sewed back together; at the funeral, he raged to her assembled family about her unfaithfulness. (?Big Daddy in Books,? 2)
In the film, there is a departure from this story. Kay and Garrigan have a one night stand and consequently conceive a child. Garrigan asks permission to use the presidential hospital to perform an abortion in order to spare Kay and himself a torturous death at the hands of an angry Amin. When Dr. Thomas Junju denies them access to Amin?s hospital, Garrigan asks, ?What other choice does she have, some back street job in a village somewhere?? Thomas replies, ?It?s the only choice you?ve left her. But I don?t expect it had crossed your mind here to wonder, a white man with a black woman. What does she need with such things? (The Last King of Scotland). Junju brings up a new colonizing aspect to Kay?s story that had never existed prior.
This interpretation is not simply new, it is riddled with a new sense of conflict, invoking global dichotomies from black/white, masculine/feminine and colonizer/colonized to the ultimate life/death situation. MacDonald explains his intentions:
The man with the black woman was kind of like the racial, political element which has not really been a part of the story so far. And suddenly we see it all from a different perspective. We see him as the white man who has come in to rape and pillage the country in a way and to use a woman in a way that, you know, was the old colonial manner of doing things. You see Garrigan in a different kind of light.? (MacDonald, Director?s Commentary)
Kind of like? does not begin to describe the message MacDonald is sending. Kay is not Garrigan?s first Ugandan conquest, although she is the most important. Garrigan had been scooping up resident women as he pleases since his arrival in Uganda. As Amin and Garrigan?s relationship grows close and they enter a love affair of sorts, Amin?s wife Kay becomes the outlet for Garrigan?s sexual manifestation of that love. Although Amin shares a great deal with Garrigan, Kay is something Garrigan takes without permission, violating not only the Ugandan leader?s trust, but by ultimately destroying Kay?s well being. The resulting child, a symbolic zygote of cultural fusion at the most basic human level, is aborted before it can see the light of day. For her infidelity, Kay is dismembered; her limbs positioned in a gruesome and unnatural position, and put on display at the city morgue by Amin, an adulterer himself. The film?s message here is that, while men enjoy freedoms not afforded to women, women who don?t remain in their place will suffer the gravest of consequences. This is the ideology that is being consumed and reinforced in Uganda for mere pennies a viewing.
That the filmmakers struggled with the inclusion of the dismemberment scene offers little comfort. The only available commentary sympathetic to Kay?s cinematic plight is that of Forrest Whitaker:
Idi Amin kills her, takes the body, cuts her up and sews the parts on differently, which is one of the most gruesome images in the film. And I think that image will stick with people really strongly. And that?s, that?s not true. (Whitaker, Capturing Idi Amin)
With his consuming interest in bringing authenticity to Amin?s role, Whitaker?s tone here is remorseful, as if he finds this a tragic failure within the film. On the contrary, the actress who played Kay, Kerry Washington says:
There are things about [Kay?s] life that people are very sensitive about. People that remember her get very upset when they remember her and while it?s true that she did have an affair behind Idi?s back and she did become pregnant and seek an illegal abortion, she did not have an affair with a white man, which is, you know, I guess, dramatic license. (Capturing Idi Amin)
Washington?s remarks are flippant at best. In the case of Producer Andrea Calderwood, the same holds true when she says, ?We just felt it was such a powerful moment to dramatize Idi?s frame of mind ? we weren?t just being gratuitous about it? (Capturing Idi Amin). An awareness of the decimation of Kay?s memory exists on some level for these women, but not at the level it should. Amin and Garrigan are the prime focus, perhaps in part due to their gendered coding and internal acceptance of the message.
In the end, Garrigan is seen for the traitor he is to Amin and tortured. Hung from meat hooks through his bloody, pale, white chest with arms limply outstretch in the air, the imagery is strikingly Christ-like. Garrigan refuses to scream as if taking on the sorrow of the hundreds of thousands of slaughtered Ugandans, refusing to give Amin the satisfaction of watching him suffer the way he enjoyed watching his people suffer. Dr. Thomas Junju, the man who refused to help at the hospital, cuts Garrigan down and helps him to escape the country at the risk and eventual realization of his own peril. When Garrigan asks why Junju helps him after refusing to at the hospital, the Ugandan says,?Go home and tell the story to all. People will believe you because you are white” (The Last King of Scotland). This statement can be read in two ways, as a tool used to sell the film to Western audiences or as a commentary on how the world refuses to recognize the plight of Africans unless told by whites. These interpretations are not exclusive to one another. Although this is the case, in this instance the director offers a frank assessment of reasoning behind this telling of the story. According to an article in the Washington Post, ?[MacDonald] didn’t want a movie that fictionalized the story to the point where the white character becomes a heroic figure. ?It’s unfortunately the economics of moviemaking,? he says? (Haygood, 1). While meaning and interpretation of the film?s message essentially comes from within the text itself, it is difficult to ignore the operation of capitalism working to direct the tale in order to generate ticket sales.
With the film?s break from Amin and Kay?s lived experience, I return once again to the questions ?Is this real? Is this Uganda?s history?? It appears that the answer is no on the most literal level, yet, on a subversive level, the film wholly reifies dominant cultural realities. Theorists Horkheimer and Adorno, in Dialectic of Enlightenment specifically address the medium of film as a form of entertainment, calling out its false promise of cinematic escape from societal pressures while codifying the audience into believing existing social norms are okay and resistance is futile.
The ways in which this operates can be demonstrated through the specific relationship between Kay and Garrigan as outlined above. Horkheimer and Adorno explain:
In every product of the culture industry, the permanent denial imposed by civilization is once again unmistakably demonstrated and inflicted upon its victims. To offer and deprive them of something is one and the same? Precisely because it must never take place, everything centers on copulation. In films it is more strictly forbidden for an illegitimate relationship to be admitted without the parties being punished than for a millionaire?s son-in-law to be involved in a labor movement. In contrast to the liberal era, industrialized as well as pop culture may wax indignant at capitalism, but it cannot renounce the threat of castration. This is fundamental. (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1232)
This film?s message, not only of forbidden sex but of the forbidden combination of black and white, is imprinted upon both Western and Eastern cultures, reinforcing the ideology of cultural separation and domination of one over another. In this way, cinematic entertainment allows for now escape. ?The culture industry tends to make itself the embodiment of authoritative pronouncements, and thus the irrefutable prophet of the prevailing order? (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1234) We, as a newly global audience in this world of accessibility, do not confine our national ideologies within our own borders. While Western films offer the forbidden to reinforce that its attainability comes with sharp consequences, this Western message now dominates the globe.
What careful analysis of the film?s depiction of Amin reveals is that, rather than being a departure from contextualized history, or what?Jameson calls ?a ?revolutionary? break with the repressive ideology of?storytelling generally,? (Hutcheon, 47)?this film decenters the ideological notions of authenticity and subjectivity of film itself. In the handling of Amin, it demonstrates the power of news media?s influence of news media while simultaneously revealing that British news broadcasts offered no more objective truth than does this piece of fiction. Hutcheon would remind us that this is not an issue about media per se. Baudrillard?s theory of simulacra and media?s neutralization of the ?real? assumes that there was a ?real? to begin with. She instead counters that??there is nothing natural about the ?real? and there never was ? even before the existence of mass media? (Hutcheon, 31). Ultimately what we must understand is that narrative, whether in the form of historical record, journalism, cinematography or fiction, is inherently powerful in its representation but also has limitations.
For The Last King of Scotland, this is where the power of historiographic metafiction ends. Through the seduction and consequential murder of Kay as well as the depiction of Garrigan as the white savior of Uganda, the film becomes Western film culture?s colonization of Ugandan history working to reinforce the power of white dominant culture. Horkheimer and Adorno see the only ability to transcend made available through true art. This art:
certainly cannot be detached from style; but it does not consist of the harmony actually realized, of any doubtful unity of form and content, within and without, of individual and society; it is to be found in those features in which discrepancy appears: in the necessary failure of the passionate striving for identity. (Horkheimer and Adorno, 1232)
What Horkheimer and Adorno call for here, in essence, is the work of the postmodern. Like Hutcheon, they describe the kind of art that truly wrestles with and de-doxifies ideology in order to reveal its power and flaws. As The Last King of Scotland proves, the power of historiographic metafiction is reduced dramatically when it is centered on the laws of capitalism. Its ethical power to expose and inspire revolution against powerful ideologies can only be unleashed when art is produced for art?s sake and not for profit.
“Big Daddy in Books? TIME Magazine. Time Inc. Sep 19, 1977. October 24, 2007 This article covers breaking news of Amin in the 70?s as well as the rise in film and books addressing topics to do with the dictator. The review of A State of Blood, written by Amin?s former health minister, Henry Kyemba, is addressed in the majority of the article. This is where I pulled my information on Kay?s death from in order to compare it with the film?s version. Kyemba is an interesting author to cite since he acted a part in the film as well.
“Capturing Idi Amin? Special Feature Documentary. The Last King of Scotland. DVD. 2006. Two Step Film/BBC Scotland. 2007. Asking a question similar to my own, this film explores the implications of inserting fiction into reality. This is helpful in gathering many Ugandan viewpoints in reaction to the movie as well as what the people hope it will accomplish within their own country. It also provides access to Amin?s Minister of Health, and others who remember Amin.
The Last King of Scotland. Dir.Kevin MacDonald. Perf. Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney, Gillian Anderson. 2006. DVD. Fox Searchlight, 2007. Primary text.
Horkheimer, Max and Theodor Adorno. ?From Dialectic of Enlightenment From The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception.? Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Ed. Vincent Leitch. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. 1223-1240. Horkheimer and Adorno?s theory says that the culture industry, specifically that of film, functions as more than a form of entertainment. They call attention to its false promise of cinematic escape from societal pressures and expose the ways in which it codifies the audience into believing existing social norms are okay and that resistance is futile. I specifically use the description of forbidden sex, offered and revoked within the film as a lesson for life.
Haygood, Wil. ?This Role Was Brutal: Forest Whitaker Tried to Humanize Tyrant Amin.? Washington Post. October 1, 2006. December 1, 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com> This article addresses all the ways in which Forest Whitaker educated himself on Amin in order to bring him to life. The portions useful to my thesis are where Whitaker says Amin has fallen into the ?schism? of history, a useful commentary about the limitations of history in general. It also depicts how Director Kevin MacDonald envisioned the story. MacDonald states that the ?economics of moviemaking? requires a white heroic figure. This falls in line with my use of Horkheimer and Adorno?s theory to prove that this film provides a certain cultural reality.
Gettleman, Jeffrey, Adam B. Ellick, and Courtenay Morris. ?The Last King of Scotland Opens in Uganda.? New York Times. February 21, 2007. October 26, 2007. <http://video.on.nytimes.com/> This video highlights the film?s premiere in Uganda and the reception of this western production within the country. There are several references to the accuracy of Whitaker?s portrayal of Amin and a young man who brings his young brother to learn Ugandan history. The most pertinent piece of information is the widespread DVD underground allowing nationwide access to the film. It demonstrates the grand scale impact of Western culture upon the Ugandan nation.
“Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland.? Boldtype. December 1998. October 25, 2007 <http://www.randomhouse.com/boldtype/1298/foden> This interview with Foden explains his consolidation of Amin?s cabinet into the character of Garrigan and his process in selecting facts to include about Amin. This, in conjunction with Hutcheon demonstrates the fluidity of meaning surrounding facts in history and fiction.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism, 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2002. Hutcheon explains historiographic metafiction which, through dedoxification and self-reflexivity, reveals the power as well as the limitation employed by the medium of narrative. I use this theory to defend the insertion of fictional Garrigan within the history of Idi Amin as the character provides a new view into Amin, the man.
Jameson, Fredric. Postmodernism or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham: Duke University Press, 1992. Jameson?s points about the postmodern confusion of fact and fiction and the lack of lived history being identifiable is one way to look at historiographic metafiction. With the loss of the referent, this explains the Ugandan?s conflation of fiction and history. It also contrasts nicely with Hutcheons? positive analysis of the postmodern as performing a very specific task.
MacDonald, Kevin. ?Director?s Commentary? The Last King of Scotland. 2006. DVD. Fox Searchlight, 2007. MacDonald provides the back story on filming with Ugandan extras, experiences with Amin research and representation, and the western viewpoint of Ugandan culture. There are too many ways to list in which this information influenced my writing. Suffice it to say that the impact is immeasurable.
“Man Boobs vs. Idi Amin.? Sucks or Rules. DWLyle. November 4, 2007, November 24, 2007 <http://www.sucksorrules.com/battles/detail/people/156911/man-boobs-vs-idi-amin>. This website pits one image against another and allows members to vote on which one sucks or rules. Although the point is unclear, what is interesting is that Idi Amin, a postmodern butcher of a dictator is pitted against Meatloaf?s man boobs from Chuck Palahniuk?s Fight Club. Amin continues to infiltrate pop culture.
Timberg, Craig. ?In Uganda, ‘Last King of Scotland’ Generates Blend of Pride and Pain.? Washington Post. February 27, 2007. October 26, 2007 <http://www.washingtonpost.com> This article covers the ways in which Hollywood?s Oscar buzz surrounding the film impacted Ugandan?s in Kampala. He mentions that there are drastic differences between Amin, Foden?s novel, and finally the film and compares the film with others about Africa that have been successful in Uganda. The last paragraph was most useful, highlighting the reactions of a realistic view of history through this piece of film fiction.
(My apologies for the late arrival of this misfired synapse. I hit ?save? rather than ?publish? on Friday. ?Tis the season for abnormally high levels of brain drain.)
Whitehead draws some interesting connections between renaming a town, an adhesive bandage and a toy village. When asked about the town, our narrator says:
Winthrop is a traditional place-name, insisting on the specific history of the area and locating it in one man. The man embodies an idea, and the name becomes the idea. Standard stuff. The name New Prospera is what you might call the contemporary approach. Break it down into parts, and each part is referring to a quality they want to attach to the town. They bring the external in, import it you might say, to the region. (105)
Can Winthrop, one man who has long since passed on?as has his?defunct barbed wire company, represent an entire history of a town?s existence? Can the name New Prospera change what type of town the place becomes, erasing history and potentially creating something new?
Ehko International?s toy village, retooled, recrafted, revisiting the past in all that it had been and all that had been lost, according to the narrator, cannot be renamed. With the red, white and blue bricks of possibility, to create a new theater would also create new cinema, to dismantle the police station could perhaps dismantle crime, as if making a thing at once further?s it?s existence as well as calls into play it?s dichotomy. ?In the end, nothing was so pleasing as the image on the cover of the box and this was a lesson to be learned? (122).
This is symbolic of the struggle between the town?s third faction vying for power over the first two (with overlap between all three), rallying for the original name of Freedom. As Regina says, ?If I ask you your name and you tell me something other than what it is, that?s a lie? It should go back to Freedom. That?s it?s true name? (127). Perhaps it is a lie. Perhaps it is merely a new stage of history. One thing is for sure, everybody is talking about the full history of the place and that history, including the part about Freedom?is not lost… yet.
Enter the second to last toe on the narrator?s foot. Having stubbed it, our nameless nomenclature consultant places Apex, a multicultural adhesive bandage, over the injury. As he describes it:
The brown adhesive bandage was such a tone that it looked as if he?d never had a toenail at all. That he had never stumbled. Did it hide the hurt? Most assuredly so. (131)
Like the town, can the new name brand hide the hurt of those disappointed citizens who will lose the identity battle? Doesn?t the the name New Prospera fall short of assimilation as does the clear adhesive Band-Aid? Does?it matter?
My guess is that it matters a great deal. Apex may have hid the hurt, but I suspect that the toe continued to fester considering the fact that we know it was amputated. As with the town, a name may hide the hurt feelings of those who lose the battle for each name, and yet those citizens with attachments to what lands in the discard pile will fester with resentment. If the town?s name does return to Freedom, I suspect New Freedom will be in order. If New Luna, the soft drink, was a bit of foreshadowing, this is one way?of encompassing the history and possibility all in one. As the narrator says, ?The good ones always come back? (51). We shall see.
The?following is a rambling research proposal of sorts.
In my paper, I?ll be examining the film “The Last King of Scotland.” The?movie is about a?1970’s real?Ugandan dictator, Idi Amin,?whose life is exposed through his relationship with?the main character, a?fictional Scottish doctor, Nicholas Garrigan. Garrigan, although based on the collective real men in Amin?s council, varies in cultural origin and significantly influences several less-than-real events within the film.?Through this main character, the?film moves away from historical representation at the same time it attempts to provide access to it.?Reacting to the film’s powerful story, a?Ugandan extra on location interviewed in the DVD special features says he is glad that Ugandan children can watch this film and finally learn about their national history. But is this history? What are the implications of historeographic metafiction?in a culture?beyond the borders of?America, and what are it’s limitations? (Real thesis to come.)
To answer, I’d first like to brush Jameson’s??Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism? up against Ugandan reactions to the film?s release, examining the postmodern as a means of political and capitalist consumption of culture in Third World countries. When Hollywood, in the name of profit, represents ?history? through a predominantly white, fictional lens, what are the implications? Are there limits to what historiographic metafiction can or should responsibly do? To pick out the problems within the actual production, it will be interesting to watch the movie twice more, once strictly for content and once with the director?s commentary switched on. More on this later…
The other side of the coin is Hutcheon?s point that history has always been representation, and true access to reality has only been an assumption. In this regard, historiographic metafiction has the?ability to reveal more than the victor?s historical narrative. According to an interview with the film?s director, he suggests that the fictional Scottish Doctor allows a more personal window into dictator Idi Amin, a man who has traditionally been known more-so through mythical stories than fact all along. (I?ll have to watch again to get the exact quote.)
Amin is an interesting problem unto himsef. It is known that, during the time of Amin?s rule, journalist access was limited to panel interviews with this man alone. His?account was the sole authority of the state of his country. Witnesses to Amin?s slaughter within the country were unreachable and outsiders were unsure whether the mass killing was real. Amin also presented his own personal limitation, offering one side of himself to the press and exhibiting quite another behind closed doors. Fiction certainly provides more perspective into Amin as a character, but this not to be mistaken?for reality.
Considering these varied ideas, has historiographic metafiction offered distorted interpretation or greater understanding? Preliminary research has already produced a quote pertinent to Jameson?s point. According to “In Uganda, ‘Last King of Scotland’ Generates Blend of Pride and Pain Crowds Flock to Oscar-Honored Film About Idi Amin” By Craig Timberg
of the Washington Post:
For Ugandans too young to have clear memories of Amin’s reign, “The Last King of Scotland” gave them a welcome dose of insight into their own national history.
“After seeing the movie,” said Alice Mwesigwa, 32, “it was, ‘Wow, this is real.’ “
More appropriately phrased, this movie is merely a believable representation of the real.?Mwesigwa’s reaction is problematic in that?the?story is not “real.” According to Jameson, this form has?foregone the signposts that had traditionally signaled?fiction from reality.
According to ?Absolute Power, A chameleonic Forest Whitaker dominates an awkward Idi Amin biopic? by Ella Taylor of the Village Voice:
The Last King of Scotland deals with real events filtered through Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, in which Garrigan serves as a composite of numerous white advisers with whom Amin surrounded himself, then mercilessly cut off when they no longer served his purposes.
To unpack this description is to reveal the multiple layers of removal from the real:
- Actual events as they happened
- Distillation of Amin?s?advisors down to the fictional Dr. Garrigan
- Foden?s narrative process
- Conversion from novel to screen play
- Collective influence of director, producer and actors
- Further editing
- Viewer interpretation
Contamination of the real is inherent in any narrative, yet this particular?process is influenced by a great many people who had never personally experienced Amin?s regime.
An interview in Boldtype ?Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland? reveals the tricky process of narration prior to the further imposition of film placed upon the real. Although the English author spent much time in Africa as a child, witnessing bodies in the rivers and other horrific sights, he had no personal access to Amin.
BT: Is your portrait of Amin based on research, memory, imagination, or a combination of all three?
GF: All three, but trying to keep the research at bay was a problem. I kept discovering these amazing things about Amin which I wanted to put in the book. This was disturbing, as I felt like I was being “dictated” to, or suffering the kind of demonic possession that Amin believed existed. Still, I guess I must have pulled through: mainly I tried to hang onto to the idea that this was a story. I wanted to make people turn the page.
While Foden?s research lends authenticity to the narrative, his selection of facts shapes what is told and, in the end, he reminds us that this is?ultimately a story designed to sell and entertain.
At the end of “The Last King of Scotland” there is a scene where the fictional Dr. Garrigan, viewed as a traitor, is being tortured by Amin. He gets hung on what look like meat hooks through the chest and, as he hangs, the imagery is similar to Christ hanging on the cross. In fact, he refuses to scream – as if he is taking on the sorrow of the thousands Amin had slaughtered and refusing to give Amin the satisfaction of watching him suffer. Garrigan is eventually rescued as Amin’s attention is distracted and when he asks the man who takes him down why he did it, the Ugandan says that if Garrigan escapes, perhaps the story of the Ugandan people with finally be heard, particularly because?Garrigan is white and has the power to draw the attention of nations who can help. In the end, the implication is that Uganda is rescued by the white savior.
Is this a tool used to sell the film to American audiences or is it a commentary on how the world refuses to recognize the plight of Africans unless told by whites? I can see how both are plausible. Perhaps this is where the power of historeographic metafiction offers a view into the untold and unheard story of those people slaughtered. At the same time, it reinforces the power of the dominant culture.
According to the New York Times: World Africa video, “The Last King of Scotland Opens in Uganda? by Jeffrey Gettleman, much care has been taken by the film crew to portray events as authentically as possible. Filming within the country and using Ugandan extras allowed Forrest Whitaker to speak with the people about their memories.?In his portrayal of Idi Amin, Whitaker’s?accent and actions?also provide?a certain amount of authenticity, according to Jingo,?a native?actor and American movie translator in Uganda. Many have remarked that Whitaker had become Amin. (Quotes to follow.)
Gettleman’s article, “A Film Star in Kampala, Conjuring Amin?s Ghost,”?also reveals that the representation may not be far off the mark:
?This is not a bad attempt at history,? said Henry Kyemba, the author of ?A State of Blood,? a book he published in exile in 1977 about his years as a minister in Amin?s government.
Kyemba, having been a minister to Amin, is probably the best barameter of the films success in?capturing any similarity to the real. His experience lends an authority that most viewers can only imagine. Still, he is but one man with one perspective in an organization of many who had a deadly impact upon an entire?nation.
The film’s significant social impact is obvious as Gettleman’s?video references the prevalence and popularity of the illegal pre-release thanks to the DVD underground. Nationwide accessibility is available for 20 cents as opposed to the inaccessible $5 admission to Uganda?s only theater. Although it is difficult to?gauge?the widespread social impact, the only thing known for sure is that postmodern globalization is merging cultures and overwriting that which it erases. Perhaps, while this is inevitable, it can be handled respectfully and responsibly as “The Last King of Scotland” attempts to do.
While?the above?reports put a positive spin on the film’s?reception and acceptance in Uganda, it will be interesting to see?whether I can find a different angle or if I?ll be?forced to read?between the capitalist glorification of American publications.
So much for the seedling? as I wrote, the darn thing continued to grow. I can picture Dr. Middleton rubbing her hands together with a satisfied and somewhat sinister smile saying, “This was my plan all along.”