A murderous muse: Idi Amin and the Last King of Scotland

Stephen Howe
12 January 2007

Almost throughout the 1970s and '80s, Uganda was quite widely seen as the worst place in Africa, the heart of the heart of darkness. And at the centre of the horror was the huge, grotesque figure of Idi Amin, who seized power there in a 1971 coup, ruled with ever more unpredictable brutality until his overthrow in 1979, and continued to haunt and dominate the world's image of Uganda for many years after.

Kevin Macdonald's film The Last King of Scotland - rather loosely based on Giles Foden's 1998 novel of the same name - centres on Amin, who is played with unnerving brilliance by Forest Whitaker. For that matter, it would have been a more completely successful and far more important piece of cinema if it had done so more completely and single-mindedly.

Whenever Whitaker's Amin is onscreen, the film is electrifying. When he's not, and the action is driven by the other main character, young Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) it droops and drifts. Indeed it comes painfully close to being just another standard-issue "Innocent-abroad White-Boy-lost-in-Darkest-Africa" adventure flick, with many of the troubling political and ethical shortcomings endemic to that timeworn genre.

Stephen Howe is professor in the department of historical studies at Bristol University

More by Stephen Howe on openDemocracy:

"An Oxford Scot at King Dubya's court: Niall Ferguson's 'Colossus'" (July 2004)

"Munich: Spielberg's failure" (January 2006)

"The Wind That Shakes the Barley: Ken Loach and Irish history"
(June 2006)

Uganda's terrible plight in the Amin years was not entirely unique. In other countries on the continent, by the early-70s, the high hopes of independence had already faded. Ex-Belgian Congo had virtually collapsed within weeks of achieving sovereignty. Nigeria had witnessed a long, bloody civil war. Both Rwanda and Burundi had experienced savage campaigns of ethnic cleansing, albeit on a scale which later events there would dwarf. Equatorial Guinea was already run by a dictator just as sinister and erratic as Amin was, Macias Nguema.

But Nigeria's conflicts at least seemed to stem from readily intelligible causes, with the rival camps headed by rational men. The bloodshed Amin unleashed, and much of his general behaviour, seemed by contrast quite irrational and unintelligible. The other places which quickly descended into chaos or tyranny were - so a constant, half-spoken undercurrent in British and American commentary went - former Belgian, Spanish or Portuguese colonies, so not much good could ever have been expected from them.

Uganda, though, was British; or had been until just yesterday. Cultural, economic and other ties remained strong. There seemed especially strong reasons to be alarmed, and to care, about what happened there. More generally, Africa in the '70s and '80s commanded a degree of close media and political attention, not least in Britain, which most of it has rarely had since.

Idi Amin played to that gallery, in his actions and his increasingly bizarre public statements. Opinion remains divided over just how conscious and calculated he was being: but if he was, an awful lot of people rose to his bait. There is something still disconcerting, indeed sickening, about the way wide sections of the British media and public continued to treat Amin as a humorous figure even as the evidence of his psychopathic brutality mounted.

A little less nauseating was the reactive tendency of some "Black Power" publicists, especially in the USA, to laud Amin as a symbol of their aspirations - seemingly for no better reason than that most whites despised him. The very fact that this film was made owes a lot to our enduring obsession with Amin, who died only in 2003 after many years' undeservedly peaceful "retirement" in Saudi Arabia.

"Whenever Whitaker's Amin is onscreen, the film is electrifying": Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin

Giles Foden's novel got some way towards matching the fascination, the horror and the complexity of its subject - though there's still something only half-realised about it, especially when it drifts into long semi-documentary passages. The film - except for Whitaker's stunning performance - falls far short even of the novel's partial success. That's partly because it scraps most of the book's storyline and substitutes a more sensationalist, far less plausible one.

The story is of young Garrigan, fresh from medical school and driven by a muddled mix of idealism, lust for adventure and the simple desire to escape his horrid family in Scotland, arriving in Uganda as a medical aid worker. More or less by accident he becomes Amin's personal physician, and soon the tyrant is calling him "my closest adviser".

Initially, Garrigan admires, almost loves the despot. For a while he blinds himself to Amin's crimes and the growing hints of madness in his behaviour; but he is sucked ever further into complicity in both. Then he starts an affair with one of Amin's wives, Kay. She becomes pregnant, begs him for a secret abortion, but Amin discovers and Kay is hideously murdered. After which everything just keeps getting worse, for Garrigan and for Uganda...

One of the film's two key weaknesses lies, surely, in that last phrase, because that is its emotional focus: centre and foreground, the young white doctor; behind and in the margins, the Ugandans themselves. The other is the implausibility of much of the storyline: one simply can't believe either in Garrigan becoming Idi's "closest adviser" or in his affair with Kay.

James McAvoy as Nicholas Garrigan

Neither of those unlikely developments, incidentally, features in Foden's novel; while in reality Amin's wife Kay did indeed have an affair with and become pregnant by a doctor, and was murdered for it - but the doctor was a fellow Ugandan, Mbalu-Mukasa. It doesn't help that McAvoy as Garrigan looks about 17, making it a bit hard to see him either as a convincing doctor - even of the most junior kind - or as a suitably complex guilt-ridden fixer and plotter.

McAvoy's performance is far less compelling than Whitaker's as Amin, while most other characters are very sketchily delineated - though Simon McBurney is fittingly creepy as the obligatory MI6 man and David Oyelowo suitably stoic as the only guy to maintain his integrity throughout the growing madness. Whitaker, though, is indeed brilliant, perfectly capturing the mixture of charm and menace, joviality and ferocity, which by all accounts was the real Amin.

Whitaker has already received numerous critical awards for the performance (the film had a limited release in the US last autumn), and deserves every one. His approach to the role was, it seems, classic method acting: reading numerous books about Amin, watching documentaries, learning Swahili, even meeting some of Amin's family and friends. He's said he had to take lots of showers during filming: "trying to get the guy to leave me. I needed to wash those darker passions away."

Nothing else in the film comes close to equalling Whitaker's mesmerizing accomplishment. It shows us too little of what made Uganda as it was. State brutality there didn't start with Amin, and certainly didn't end with his downfall: his immediate successors murdered at least as many people as he did. It descends all too thoroughly near the end into a very conventional "escape drama" mode. And it evades too many difficult issues: Britain's utterly dishonourable role in his rise to power is hinted at, but that of Israel, or the crucial parts played by Libya and the Saudis in keeping him there, are not. Neither the fact that Amin was a Muslim, nor the role of Uganda's destructive ethnic and regional rivalries - and all of these were central to what happened under his rule - is alluded to.

OK, one doesn't expect a film like this to double as an exercise in Ugandan historical sociology, but some of those omissions feel like evasions. The subject's weight of terror and suffering deserves better. So does Giles Foden's flawed but fascinating novel. Meanwhile, so far as I know, no novel by any Ugandan author - and almost none by any black African creative writer at all - has ever been filmed in the west.

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