Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The Last King of Scotland

I'm fascinated by Africa, both its history and its present, although I have to admit, most of it I don't understand. Americans, both white and black, know and care very little about the history of Africa and there isn't all that many works available about it, so I was pretty excited about the film The Last King of Scotland.

In most movies about Africa, the actual African people are usually less important to the plot than the wildlife or the scenery. There are a few exceptions though, and The Last King of Scotland is one of them.

The film is historical fiction. Some of the people and events are based on history and some are made up. Set in the 1970's Uganda, that presents an unusual problem in that it's pretty hard to know what was real and what wasn't.

It tells the story of the first part of Idi Amin's presidency. Amin is thought responsible for killing an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 people in Uganda. Just the fact that there's a 2/3 margin of error in these estimates gives you some idea of what must have gone on in those days.

Because the film and the novel it came from were intended for a western audience, there had to be a western guide to the utterly alien world of African culture so they created the fictional character of Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, a Scottish national who travels to Uganda after medical school to minster to the villages, but ends up as the personal physician to the new dictatator, Idi Amin. Garrigan was fictional, but most of the other characters in the film were based on real people.

I've watched the film twice now and it's still very difficult for me to take it at face value because so many of the forces that shaped the modern world also shape the film itself. It's impossible to tell if the characters shape this story, or if they're just floating on the waves of historical and social issues that make up the fabric of Uganda in the '70's.

If you come to the film without knowing the history, it's a fantastically powerful human drama, and a true tragedy in the original Greek sense of the word. You see hubris change a man who truly loves his country and his people turn into an ogre and slave to his own insecurities and ambition.

If you come to the film knowing its history, then it's all those things plus an intricate piece of the puzzle that is modern Africa. To give you an idea how difficult it was to divorce the story from it's history, the climax and end of the film occurs right at the beginning of the infamous raid on Entebee, that so shaped the course of the modern conflict over Israel. To bring it back to the world of cinema, there are four other entire films that begin at the very end of The Last King of Scotland.

Forest Whitaker was nearly buried in an avalanche of awards and nominations for his portrayal of Amin, including the coveted Academy Award for Best Actor. He struggled mightily to humanize a man remembered in history for atrocities approaching the levels Hitler or Stalin. Part of his struggle was knowing how the white, western world uses stories like Amin to dismiss Africa and Africans as hopelessly savage and alien.

I think he's wildly successful in his portrayal, although it gives us no clues how to respond to what's going on in Africa, even today.

If you're wondering about the title. Uganda was once a colonial holding of Great Britain, as is Scotland. As a young man, Amin took a job as soldier for the British African Corps and the officers of his unit were all from Scotland. Amin saw similarities between Scotland and Uganda, which, ironically obtained it's independence from Great Britian before Scotland. During his presidency, Amin sought to wring out the forces of colonial control in Uganda and make it stand on its own. He never forgot his Scottish friends though, and offered himself as the new King of Scotland to help free the Scottish from Great Britian as he'd done for Uganda. He even invited himself to visit the Queen to discuss the matter, but she declined.

1 comment:

Matt said...

Good review. Rex asked me to contact you regarding a review of the book Lim. Shoot an email to, and we'll set it up.