Mar. 7, 2007

Historical Cinema that Succeed

The Last King of Scotland is a compelling film that tells a story of Idi Amin Dada’s regime in Uganda in the 1970s, while also speaking to the political and social conditions still faced by some countries in Africa today. The film has won numerous awards in the past two months, particularly for Forrest Whitaker’s portrayal of Amin, and consequently will likely be seen by millions of viewers. Because I knew nothing about Idi Amin before seeing The Last King of Scotland, when I returned home from watching the film I was eager to learn about the real story of Idi Amin. I expected there to be certain discrepancies and omissions in the film compared to Amin’s real life; however, it was an unexpected surprise to learn that supporting actor James McAvoy plays a character that never existed in real life and was merely based on certain advisors surrounding Amin during his regime.

In spite of my surprise, I have to consider my experience with The Last King of Scotland successful in a historical sense because the film made me want to go home and learn more about Uganda’s past. Although Wikipedia was the first information source I consulted, I discovered that the official movie website also had a (sparse) timeline and (limited) interpretation to expand on (or broadly sketch out?) the story of Amin’s regime; the filmmakers anticipated that movie-goers would be interested to learn more about this man’s time in Uganda! (If only they had more information! Perhaps we can hope the DVD's special features will relate more of the history!)

Historians and theorists continue to debate how the past should be portrayed and interpreted in film, but as a public historian I think that one standard by which films should be judged is their ability to make people curious about the past. If a historical film, be it a documentary or a Hollywood-produced blockbuster, raises no questions and leaves the audience believing that the film is the be-all-and-end-all on that particular subject, then it has, to a certain degree, failed. The five-minute feature or the 12-disc DVD box collection that makes people run to their library or computer thinking “That can’t be right!” or “I wonder what else there is to this story?” is a success because it gets people thinking critically. If somebody films a movie or writes a letter to argue for an alternative interpretation of that history, so much the better!

Anybody who decides to make a living in the field of history probably thinks that History is an important subject for one reason or another. As members of a discipline that teaches critical thinking skills, historians should be as interested in introducing these skills to others as they are in sharing information about the past. A more discerning audience can only compel formal historians to put out more well-argued and well-presented history.