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Whitaker evokes Uganda from decades ago. What about now?

I saw The Last King of Scotland last night and had been prepared to be pissed off about yet another Africa film with a white protagonist. But Forest Whitaker gives an absolutely extraordinary performance as Idi Amin. During the credits, we see footage of Amin addressing the crowd, dancing with supporters and hamming it up for the cameras – after watching Whitaker channel the dictator for two hours, I had a doubletake before realizing that I was no longer watching Whitaker and was seeing historical footage. I’m not surprised that Whitaker spent months preparing for the role, learning enough Swahili to adlib with actors, and interviewing dozens of people who had known Amin.

(If you’re looking for proof of Whitaker’s versatility, I recommend “Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai”, a beautiful, slow, funny and moving film where Whitaker is extremely compelling as a figure about as far from Amin as you can imagine.)

There’s a lot of awkwardness to the film – the protagonist, a young Scottish doctor, isn’t especially believable and it’s hard to feel much emotion for him as he makes one unforgiveable misstep after another. It’s reassuring to discover that James McAvoy’s Dr. Nicholas Garrigan has at least a loose basis in fact. Bob Astles is a British soldier who moved to Uganda and set up an airline in the late 1950s. He married a Ugandan, and supported Milton Obote through Uganda’s independence process, transferring his allegiance to Amin after the 1971 coup. He was imprisoned by Amin under suspicion that he was still loyal to Obote, but became one of the dictator’s chief advisors by 1975. Ugandans referred to him as “the white rat” – Garrigan, in the film, is told that Ugandans refer to him as “Amin’s white monkey”. Other details from Astles’s life are echoed as well – like Garrigan, Astles says he was forced to take Ugandan citizenship. What’s not echoed is the aftermath – while Garrigan escapes, Astles served almost seven years in prison and remains unapologetic for his support for Amin. He continues to follow Ugandan politics closely, publishing a long opinion piece in the Kampala Monitor about the 2006 elections. I’ll hold out hope for a biography on Astles some time in the future – he’s clearly more interesting than his fictionalized version.

Aside from Whitaker’s performance, the strongest aspect of the film in my eyes was the way Amin began as a figure of hope and inspiration and became a monster. The scriptwriters keep shooting this narrative in the foot (they give us Gillian Anderson in a throwaway role as an old Africa hand, warning us that she’s seen dictators before, and one of Amin’s wives warning that he’s always been a monster shortly before he orders her killed), but the idea of Amin as a compelling figure, capable of inspiring loyalty, comes out in Whitaker’s portrayal. It’s also coming out in Ugandan reactions to the film, according to an article on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times:

“Amin made an attempt of ensuring the economy was in the hands of the indigenous people,” said Dixon Kamukama, a history professor at Makerere University in Kampala. “It was crude. But it was the beginning of what we needed.”

That’s a remarkable statement about a leader who was responsible for the deaths of at least 300,000 citizens and the collapse of a nation’s economy. Less surprising to me was the reaction of a 25-year old Kampala video store clerk: “It’s hard to believe that was our country.” An American film, produced in Uganda, may end up being a “historical” document that helps young Ugandans understand one of the darkest times in their national history.

The Times article points out that the fact that the film was produced in Uganda is indicative of the nation’s economic stability, security and growth since the darkness of the 1970s. Many African films are made outside of the countries where they’re set, like Hotel Rwanda, which was filmed primarily in South Africa. Even though The Last King of Scotland portrays terrible times in a nation’s history, the fact that it was made in Uganda is a sign of great progress.

Moses Odokonyero, writing at the Sub-Saharan African Round Table blog, isn’t buying it. After commenting on a historical book about the murder of the Anglican Archbishop of Uganda by Amin’s forces, he wonders how different Uganda really is today:

Museveni, like Amin, shot his way to power after a five-year guerilla struggle that he and his supporters call a revolution. One of his favourite topics, besides the media, is past leaders whom he baptized “swines” several years ago. But how different is he from the “swines?” Uganda has greatly changed since the Amin days: people don’t disappear as often and crudely from the streets, and there has been an improvement in press freedom and freedom of speech which is commendable. But stories of illegal detentions, people being tortured in the most gruesome of ways, including allegedly tying stones on their testicles, are still heard of, only this time they take place in “safe houses.”

Odokonyero’s argument centers on Uganda’s recent elections, where opposition candidate Dr. Kizza Besigye fought charges of treason from President Yoweri Museveni while trying to run his candidacy. Even Museveni’s harshest critics aren’t making the case that Museveni is the moral equivalent to Amin. But the combination of international recognition of stability and growth and domestic questions about human rights and political freedom is a pattern that’s hauntingly familiar to Africa-watchers.

7 thoughts on “Whitaker evokes Uganda from decades ago. What about now?”

  1. For what it’s worth, the original novel is significantly different from the film. Garrigan isn’t as stupid, as far as I remember, and the ending is different. He’s still in Kampala when Tanzania invades, so he tries to go back to the village, finds himself the other side of the Tanzanian lines and ends up going back to Kampala with the Tanzanians and Obote’s forces.

  2. While there’s no doubt that Whitaker is the absolute star of the film, I do think you’re being a little harsh on James McAvoy / Dr. Nicholas Garrigan . As a naive upper class european who knows nothing about the “africa” he has some vague notion of “helping” I found him to be a fairly believable character and also the one who sends out the message to a western audience that this could very well “be you”.

  3. Pingback: …My heart’s in Accra » Reuters’ (and Global Voices’) new Africa coverage

  4. Hi Ethan!

    This is a great post – many thanks. I still haven’t gotten out to see this film (I’m a father of two little kids, you know..) but am very excited about it. I love Forest Whitaker in all of his roles over the years. I also watched a brilliant New York Times website clip about the opening of the film in Kampala which I don’t think you mention yet – and also blogged about it on my fledgling blog. One of my first posts! ;-)


    I was barely a twinkle in my parents’s eyes when Amin was in power – so this story for me is history.. but when I was living in Kenya in 88-90 I remember it being often talked about around the dinner table. I have friends who grew up exiled from Uganda or who remember having to leave. It’s easy to ignore/forget the deep impact of the violence of his regime – I’m glad films like this are being made so that we don’t.

    And BTW, the novel is well worth reading as well – I really liked it and found it to be even more gripping – and uncomfortable – than I imagine the film being.

  5. i just caught the film last night… while i agree with your characterization of whitaker’s brilliant performance, i thought the doctor character was extremely believable. it’s not often that i find myself *caring* about a character in the climax of a film… whether i should have is probably the better question, but i guess that means the filmmakers did their job.

    all in all, it was a great flick and a bit of a history lesson for me, as i knew names, places and death counts, but had no idea about amin’s sinister and charismatic personality.

  6. I am a Ugandan. Most of us do not accept that Amin killed 300, 000 Ugandans. The reason Amin was vilified in the west and among his snobbish African peers was because he was uneducated, was a muslim, tall, dark and ugly and not because he was supposedly murdering his citizens. After all other African leaders were doing the same if not worse and they never got the attention that Amin got.

    Ugandan writer timothy kalyegira captured many Ugandan attitudes in a recent article reproduced below:

    BY Timothy kalyegira September 1, 2007

    This week, two fellow Daily Monitor columnists, Nicholas Sengoba and Charles Onyango-Obbo addressed what is being viewed these days as my supposed effort to whitewash Idi Amin’s image.

    Last week, a rejoinder by Brig. George Nyero, the former Commanding Officer of the Military Police criticised my consistent defence of Amin.

    Onyango-Obbo casts this emerging second look at Uganda’s history as “revisionism.” He assumes, to begin with, that what he and millions of others regard as history was ever accurate in the first place. To me, this is the start of a long overdue, more balanced interpretation of what happened in Uganda.

    The reason many people react strongly to my defence of Amin is because it makes them feel foolish. My challenge makes many realise that all these years, they had never thought through what they believe.

    Amin has become one of the most recognisable Africans in history. This international standing, of course, is centred on Amin’s notoriety, at the heart of which is the widely accepted view that he was responsible for the deaths of between 300,000 and 500,000 Ugandans during his eight- year rule.

    Never did it occur to the world that this image of Amin is largely and overwhelmingly false. This has taught me that the world is largely a gullible place. That is why I find it increasingly hard to take people seriously, no matter how “brilliant.” I would not be surprised, had he been alive, that even the great Albert Einstein would have believed that Amin killed 500,000 people.

    I meant what I said earlier this year when I have challenged the senior Presidential Media Advisor John Nagenda and other Ugandans to give us a list of only 600 names of Amin’s victims. As I expected, not a single Ugandan here or overseas has forwarded as few as 20 names.

    I disagree with Onyango-Obbo’s view that some families are either still too traumatised to delve into this matter or have simply decided to maintain a “dignified silence” in the face of my ridiculous defence of Amin.

    It is just what I have been writing about Ugandan and African society for many years now: a mediocre and lacklustre people whose intellectual bandwidth is just not given to thinking, probing, inquiry, researching, sceptical questioning, no matter how educated, well-paid, well-travelled or “sophisticated” they might be.

    I also don’t take seriously the claim that somehow Africans don’t generally keep records and so it is unfair to expect them to produce a list of 600 names of Amin’s victims.

    We have to ask: if it is said that Amin killed 300,000 or 500,000 Ugandans, how did we arrive at that number? Whoever arrived at that staggering figure of 500,000 must have been doing some counting. They must have kept track of the victims. They should forward that list, if not the entire 500,000, then at least 600 names.

    Four months ago I wrote to the International Commission of Jurists in Geneva. The organisation that published a report in May 1977 claiming that between 80,000 and 90,000 Ugandans had been killed by Amin.

    If Ugandans are poor at keeping records, then we can at least count on the meticulous Swiss to keep files of all their published material. And yet to this day, I have not got a reply from Geneva. Many people have argued that it does not matter whether 20 people are murdered by a regime or 500,000 even one life is precious.

    However, we know that numbers matter by the way the world reacts to the figure of 500,000 supposedly killed by Amin. If we are to be sensitive to the families of those that lost loved ones, let us be sensitive to all.

    In July when I visited Luzira Upper Prison, I learnt about an inmate named Mohammed Birikadde, who was a Sergeant in the 1970s Uganda Army and was arrested in 1979 when Amin’s government was overthrown.

    For 28 years, he has been pleading his innocence but has watched his life waste away in Luzira, now the longest serving inmate in the condemned section. What does one do with a case like that, if we are content to settle for the generalisation that Amin killed 500,000 people or that it doesn’t matter whether 600 or half a million people died?

    Last Saturday I asked why Amin’s enemies, the Israelis, in books written shortly after the raid on Entebbe in 1976, far from painting Amin as a murderer, speak well of him and even defend him over the murder of Brig. Pierino Okoya.

    I am surprised that Uganda’s leading newspapers have not taken up my challenge. If world history that casts Amin as the murderer of 300,000 people has, all along been false, this is a major tragedy. Accuracy and truth matter. They matter, for the sake of history and for justice.

    I stand in defence of Amin.


    See the links below for more information on this:

    1. http://www.ugandarecord.co.ug

    2. Source: http://www.mail-archive.com/ugandanet@kym.net/msg17848.html

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