Though he is rarely mentioned now, it is impossible to exaggerate the British media’s racist caricature of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 1970s. Not only was he a hate figure in the mould of Osama bin Laden, but also a laughable cannibal halfwit, with a frequent undercurrent that nothing else could be expected from black rule in Africa.
Western cinema’s latest foray into Africa, The Last King of Scotland, is far from such a viewpoint. It alludes to the shady role of colonialism in the recent past. Nevertheless it maintains the annoying liberal habit of implying that if only the moderates had been in power none of the nastiness need have happened.
Forest Whitaker’s powerful performance as Amin shows why he was initially attractive to Ugandans, as he talks of the potential of the country and ridicules the British.
But the film is largely the story of the fictional Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), a newly qualified Scottish doctor who visits Uganda in 1971 to work in a rural health centre.
Unaware of the local situation, he is shocked and excited to find himself in the middle of Amin’s coup. He attends a rally by the new president and is impressed by his empathy with the people and inspired by his promises to improve their lot.
Following an accidental encounter, Nicholas becomes the president’s personal doctor and before long an unofficial adviser. He is scathing when approached by the old colonialists of the British Foreign office who want him to act as their unofficial eyes in Amin’s inner circle.
As he becomes more closely tied with the regime he realises that all is not what it seemed. The violence and brutality around the mercurial Amin’s court shock him, but by now he has become implicated and can’t see a way out. Nicholas turns for help to the British he had previously spurned – they provide evidence of the regime’s butchery of the opposition. As the film progresses it becomes a more straightforward thriller.
The real Amin did have a British adviser in a roughly similar role to Nicholas. However, Bob Astles was not a fresh faced doctor, but an ex-soldier who had lived in Uganda since the 1950s.
Amin made an unconvincing radical. In the 1950s he had fought for the British against the anti-colonialist Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya – where he apparently worked with Scottish troops, developing the affection for Scotland alluded to in the film’s title. Later he was promoted to lieutenant, one of only two Ugandans to achieve this rank under British rule.
However, despite location shooting – evocatively recreating early 1970s East Africa, combining red dirt roads in the countryside with modernist buildings in the capital, Kampala – and a universally strong cast, including a number of Ugandan actors, the film is ultimately unsatisfying.
The early scenes give a sense of the hope and excitement of the period. As it shifts gear into thriller mode its concern is with the white British doctor’s escape from the horror, not the experience of Ugandans. The narrow focus effectively reprises the current mantra that the problem with Africa is “bad governance”.
Idi Amin certainly was dangerously unstable, but the crisis of Uganda cannot be understood through that alone, any more than the Second World War can be explained by Hitler being a carpet-chewing lunatic.
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