Last King of Scotland: Doctor to a Dictator

CHARMING. MAGNETIC. MURDEROUS. 

A few years ago I read a book called “State of Blood”, a depiction of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s murderous regime, that had been published while Amin was still in power. The author was his former Minister of Health, Henry Kyemba, who had realized just how dangerous and insane his boss was and fled the country. It was a horrific tale from the inside of Amin’s administration and The Last King of Scotland could probably not have been made without it. This is nevertheless primarily the tale of how the white West viewed the dictator.

The year is 1971. Scotsman Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) has graduated from medical school, but has no desire whatsoever to follow in his father’s footsteps. Desperate for a change, he goes to Uganda of all places on a humanitarian mission, gets to know an attractive fellow aid worker, Sarah (Gillian Anderson), and witnesses a charismatic army general called Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker) take over the country in a coup. Nicholas is excited about the prospects of an Amin administration but Sarah is skeptical; she knows that Amin’s predecessor was greeted with the same kind of enthusiasm and then turned into a corrupt, power-hungry leader. They both meet Amin after an accident where the new President’s hand needs medical attention. Nicholas impresses the President to the degree that he decides to hire him as his personal physician.

Nicholas is warned by British authorities, but he ignores them thinking that all these former colonialists want is to interfere with the policies of a now independent nation. He turns a blind eye to all signs of an emerging repressive regime… but can’t help being charmed by one of Amin’s wives, Kay (Kerry Washington). She and Nicholas are attracted to each other but as he learns that Amin’s rule may be tainted with blood, the British authorities are not terribly eager to assist a foolish Brit who wouldn’t listen to their warnings in the first place…

From documentaries to fiction
Perhaps this film would have been even more effective if the protagonist wasn’t a rather annoying, shallow white guy who has no interest in politics until the day when he learns that his own life is in danger because of the idiotic relationship he nurses with a maniac. Still, through the eyes of a fictional character, Nicholas, the film shows how the West came to regard Amin; the President was greeted as a liberator of Uganda until it became impossible to deny his thirst for blood as well as his irresponsibility. In one scene, Nicholas tellingly lets Amin know that he’s just “a child”. Kevin Macdonald, a renowned documentary filmmaker, made his fiction feature debut here; he shot the film in Uganda and convincingly recreates the horrible era.

However, it is interesting to note that he and his collaborators occasionally make the story seem less than credible, including Garrigan’s behavior at times; the film also turns into a white-knuckle thriller in the end that seems distant from Macdonald’s previous documentaries. McAvoy gives his character some complexity, but this is of course Whitaker’s film; he’s just as magnetic as Amin himself in those old news clips where he’s charming the press, but we can sense the madness and evil behind his smile and sweet talk.

The closest Africa comes to a dictator like Amin today is Robert Mugabe, President of Zimbabwe. But not even his regime of terror and economic insanity matches that of Amin. What the stories of Amin and Mugabe tell us is that evil sometimes comes in the shape of a liberator… and it is dangerous not to take the early warning signs seriously.

The Last King of Scotland 2006-Britain-Germany. 121 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced by Lisa Bryer, Andrea Calderwood, Charles Steel. Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Screenplay: Peter Morgan, Jeremy Brock. Novel: Giles Foden. Cast: Forest Whitaker (Idi Amin), James McAvoy (Nicholas Garrigan), Kerry Washington (Kay Amin), Gillian Anderson, Simon McBurney, David Oyelowo.

Oscar: Best Actor (Whitaker). BAFTA: Best British Film, Actor (Whitaker), Adapted Screenplay. Golden Globe: Best Actor (Whitaker).

Last word: “My documentary background was helpful. That’s why I wanted to do it in Uganda because there was a certain security in knowing that this was grounded in the real place. It was a kind of security blanket. I wanted to show an African city that was different from what we think an African city is like. There are cinematic clichés like the Serengeti, zebras and the slums of Soweto. So, to see that Kampala is a very modern, cool and a sexy kind of city is surprising for many people. It’s exciting for me to take an audience to a world that they don’t really know, to make it fresh to them.” (Macdonald, indieLondon)

 

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