The sad, violent, disturbing reign of Idi Amin is one story worth telling, but not at the expense of the country that felt his wrath. Uganda suffered greatly under Amin; a man of great charm and charisma, who also happened to have a taste for mass slaughter and, if you believe the rumors, human flesh. He was the stereotypical African dictator, after all — a military thug who used swagger and black nationalism to secure power before abandoning his promises to build schools and hospitals, while simultaneously lining his pockets with the nation’s wealth. And of course, the image would not be complete without the bear of a man lounging around the pool while the rest of the nation starved and lived in perpetual fear. Such a story might not revolutionize the medium, but at least it would allow Africans to tell an African story; on their own terms, and with their own sense of responsibility. Instead, Kevin Macdonald’s The Last King of Scotland is Amin as imagined through the eyes of a white man; proof once again that audiences are not expected to set foot on the Dark Continent unless accompanied by a pale-faced interpreter. More than being paternalistic and racist, however, it’s simply unimaginative and tired, and a trend that deserved to be retired long ago.
The central figure, then, is not Amin, but Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan, a young chap who resists the stifling mandates of his father and rejects the family practice for the wilds of Africa, eventually becoming the dictator’s personal physician. Nicholas is typical of his age — idealistic, brash, and is just the sort of do-good hippie who has ruined the planet at every conceivable turn. And there’s the essential weakness: what we witness for two full hours is not the internal politics of a nation gone mad, but the destruction of that very idealism that is expected to translate for largely white audiences. It might even speak to dozens of former Peace Corps volunteers, though few had the opportunity to sit at the right hand of a world class killer. But it takes Nicholas quite a bit of time to reach this disillusionment, even offering up the excuse that “violence must be met with violence,” as if the little fuck would ever utter such words if warring whites were butchering each other en masse. It’s like the straight-from-central-casting British sot who utters, “That’s all Africans understand … a firm hand” — we in the West don’t recoil in horror at the assorted holocausts of the area, because we’ve set the bar so low that we’re apt to applaud them for using starvation rather than automatic weapons as their instrument of elimination.
Forrest Whitaker is quite good as Amin, as he expertly conveys the attraction such a man would hold, especially in a part of the world desperate for even the slightest hint of leadership. Uganda, as every other African nation post-colonization, was screwed from within, but expecting a George Washington to appear mere years after being virtually enslaved from without is a tall order indeed, even more so when these countries are desperately poor to begin with. No excuse should be offered, though, for the succession of generals and fascists who have continually raped the continent, but it’s time the story was told by the people who were forced to live under their thumbs for so long. Nicholas is a well-drawn, intriguing character in his own right (he turns a blind eye, as well as impregnating one of Amin’s wives), but he’s far better served in the background; a remnant from the recent past, but not a vital piece by which the story turns. When he’s boarding a plane at the end to escape certain death (his betrayal has been discovered at last), we shouldn’t care about his plight, even though the soundtrack insists that we do. I couldn’t help but wonder: What of the thousands left below? When will they have their nail-biting finale?