Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland

Reviewed by Daniel Garrett

The Last King of Scotland
Directed by Kevin Macdonald
Starring: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy
Cinematographer: Anthony Mantle
Production Designer: Michael Carlin
Editor: Justine Wright
Fox Searchlight, 2006

Forest Whitaker has appeared in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Platoon (1986), The Color of Money (1986), Good Morning Vietnam (1987), Bird (1988), A Rage in Harlem (1991), The Crying Game (1992), Prêt-a-Porter (1994), Ghost Dog (1999), and Panic Room (2002), but he will be known for a long time to come for portraying the notorious African leader Idi Amin, the president of Uganda, in The Last King of Scotland (2006). When I saw Forest Whitaker in Bird, I thought it was one of the best performances I had seen, and that Whitaker had captured the enthusiasm and torment of a talented man, saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. I was surprised that the film was disliked by people who loved the African-American improvisational music, jazz, that Parker had given breath and invention to; they disapproved of the film’s focus on Parker’s private life and drug use. It is work that earns an artist our attention, after all: and the film Bird had made the music one of the incidents of the man’s life rather than presenting music as his life’s mission. Is such treatment because an audience cannot be trusted with—and is rarely trusted with—the details of what goes into the life of an artist: intelligence, feeling, dedication, discipline, sacrifice, attention to tradition, experimentation, and a great deal of what ordinary people would consider tedium? Forest Whitaker—who is often described as cuddly, humble, intelligent, and warm—made strong impressions—genuine, lively, protean—in his exploration of other roles. Whitaker, with Robin Givens, amused me in Bill Duke’s film interpretation of Chester Himes’s novel A Rage in Harlem, with what I felt was delicious erotic comedy involving greed and social expectations. The black British soldier (and kidnap victim, and friend and lover) Forest Whitaker plays in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game—a character who is not in the movie long, but whose presence reverberates—is unpredictable, a man whose responses are not confined by gender or ethnicity. Whitaker was a spectacle in Robert Altman’s Prêt-a-Porter, and I’m told he gave a very good performance in Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog, and I vaguely recall his character’s perplexing decency—while robbing a house—in David Fincher’s Panic Room. Against the odds, Forest Whitaker has put together a very respectable career.

“Receiving this honor tells me that it’s possible for a kid from East Texas, raised in South Central L.A., and Carson, who believes in dreams, who believes them in his heart, to touch them and have them happen,” said Forest Whitaker, the star of The Last King of Scotland, upon being given the film industry’s Academy Award, the Oscar, for his performance as Idi Amin. Idi Amin—part proud African, part buffoon, part dictator, part psychopath—is the kind of man who tests human imagination and understanding: if he had not existed, hardly anyone would have had the imagination or perversity to invent him, and if anyone had, the invention probably would have been thought too improbable, too slandering. The Idi Amin that Forest Whitaker presents in The Last King of Scotland is charming, earnest, friendly, instinctive, intense, mercurial, paranoid, punishing, relentless, shrewd, and very powerful: a dazzling personality, a frightening man. Although I had remembered, possibly too vaguely, Idi Amin’s brutality, I had been looking forward to Whitaker’s performance and the film months before seeing The Last King of Scotland, thinking that it sounded like a great opportunity for a unique actor. When I saw the film—a kind of comic horror show—I admired and liked Whitaker’s performance, and those of his colleagues, specifically Kerry Washington as Amin’s wife Kay, and James McAvoy as Nicholas Garrigan, a doctor who impresses Amin and whom Amin befriends, and Gillian Anderson as Sarah Merrit, a western do-gooder, but I wanted to put the film out of my mind as soon as possible. Some of the characters who cross Idi Amin’s path in the film are fiction, such as the doctor, and were created for the story. The doctor is young, sweet, self-deluded, Kay is sensitive and sensual and a worried mother, and Sarah is hard-working and honest and she has been in Africa long enough not to believe the rhetoric of reform. Based on the novel The Last King of Scotland by Giles Foden, with a screenplay credited to Foden and Jeremy Brock and Peter Moran, and directed by Kevin Macdonald, The Last King of Scotland is a film that I can respect but not celebrate. It makes me think too much about human error.

The father-abandoned Ugandan Idi Amin (1925-2003), whose mother believed in herbs and divination, had little education, but Idi Amin did have energy and will and a talent for acquiring languages (no small thing on a continent and in a country with many languages). It is energy and will that are often greater indicators of ultimate success in the world, though the lack of education sometimes means that instinct rather than intellect will be guide and limitation. After Idi Amin became part of Britain’s colonial troops in Africa, he got the opportunity to travel, meet people, and kill them. Upon Uganda’s independence as a nation, Amin became a first lieutenant in the army and though atrocities began—beatings, torture, live burial—Amin was not punished by his Ugandan masters, among them prime minister Apolo Milton Obote, who would become Uganda’s president. Instead of censure or correction, Amin, also a noted boxer and a reputed self-serving smuggler of ivory and gold, received a series of promotions for what was considered his effective accomplishment of his duties: he was promoted to colonel, then general, then chief of staff to Apolo Milton Obote, whom Amin would rebel against in 1971, declaring himself president. Idi Amin became known for torture and murder, striking those high and low, though for a president it might be supposed that all others are low; and yet, mysteriously, though possibly not surprisingly, reports of Amin’s brutality were not always believed nor acted on. (The Guardiannewspaper would summarize Idi Amin’s methods decades later: “Parliament was dissolved; no elections were held; secret police—most of them in plain clothes—exercised absolute power of life and death; and the courts and the press were subjugated to the whims of the executive,” Patrick Keatley, a journalist who himself had been threatened by Amin, wrote in the paper’s August 18, 2003 obituary of Amin.) In 1975 Idi Amin was elected president of the Organization of African Unity. It was not until 1979, after Amin decided to invade and take over Tanzania’s northern province, that Amin did fall from power, following Tanzania’s military response, the invasion of Uganda. Idi Amin fled first to Libya then to Saudi Arabia, where Amin lived until he died. When Idi Amin’s death was announced by the news service CNN ( on Saturday, August 16, 2003, it was noted that there was momentary doubt about Amin’s birth—not whether a woman actually had given birth to him but when (Ugandan administrators had announced Amin was 80 years old, rather than 78 years old). Amin was Muslim and according to Muslim ritual he was buried quickly, in Saudi Arabia. CNN reported that Idi Amin was believed to be responsible for between 300,000 and 500,000 deaths. Some even thought him capable of cannibalism. Was Idi Amin’s madness the insecurity of the powerful, made more complicated by the realities of colonialism and African primitivism, or, as some speculated, a result of syphilis?

The life of Idi Amin is a lot of material—a lot of will, a lot of madness, a lot of cruelty—for one film to contain, and in truth the film The Last King of Scotland suggests more than it shows. Like several other African leaders, Idi Amin betrayed the dream of African independence: he did not demonstrate to the west, to Africans, or to anyone, what good things Africans could make of freedom, of human possibility, of the resources of nature. Idi Amin, who gave himself fancy titles, such as the one that gives the film its name, embodied the very worst of humanity. The film presents to us a created character—James McAvoy’s young doctor—and allows us slowly to see through that character’s innocent but self-gratifying eyes how dense and pervasive was Amin’s evil. The doctor believes he himself might do something to aid health care in Uganda after Amin gives him a post, but the doctor—through concern for Amin and misplaced suspicion—throws doubt on one of Amin’s ministers, someone who was actually working on behalf of the people, and that minister is killed. The doctor becomes involved with one of Amin’s wives, Kay, getting her pregnant, and Amin has her butchered (the sight of her dead body is one of the most disturbing in the film; and here the film uses reports of Amin’s actual butchery of a wife for its invented drama involving the doctor). The innocent man is no longer innocent (and, once he began to live and work in Uganda, his innocence may have been simply a lack of recognition of circumstance and responsibility). The film, which has less violence than I feared, still tries one’s nerves and patience. One watches quotidian scenes with dread; and our imagination is used against our reason, the effect of charisma and also of terrorism. The cruelty is so instinctive, so crude, so uncontested, and so final it seems a kind of absurdity. Shouldn’t there be more protest, more struggle, as bodies fall? Leaving the film, I thought, I’m glad they made this film, I’m glad I saw it, but I really do not have to think or talk about it any further. I did not want to examine more closely so much human darkness, nor the irredeemable fact of brutal black error. Have we not seen more examples of black men going wrong than we ever need? It seems better to discuss the men who are able, through ingenuity and opportunity, through strength and wisdom, through sheer luck, to achieve significant humane purpose. Films on benevolent African leaders—on the clerk, newspaper editor, fighter of female circumcision, London School of Economics student (under anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski), Kikuyu language and customs scholar, farmer, community organizer, freedom fighter, prime minister, and Kenyan president Jomo Kenyatta (also known as Kamau wa Ngengi, 1889-1978); and on the University of Edinburgh graduate, teacher, political activist, socialist, pan-Africanist, language translator, premier, and Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere (1922-1999); and on South African president Nelson Mandela, who now needs no introduction—would be welcomed by cinema goers and enlightened citizens around the world.

It does not help that so much of what we see about Africa is needless death—whether brought on by disease, drought, murder, or war. How many people who have seen The Last King of Scotland will see also Abderrahmane Sissako’s Bamako (2006), a film about African private, public, and international existence, involving the effects of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund on Africa, though Bamako has been in some American theaters? How many people will seek out the work of other African directors? There are several African film festivals in New York each year, and with the best intentions—but lacking the fullest of wallets—I usually do not see more than a few new films made by Africans each year. I long to be able to see year round, not only for two weeks in a given season, more films about ordinary African life, films that have complexity and drama—and yes, some conflict—but films that do not make civilized humanity seem like a neglected idea it would be good and interesting—though unlikely—for the Africans to entertain. Yet, I must admit that there is drama—there has been, and will be—in monstrosity. The ancient Greeks knew that—and so we have theater in which a father abandons his son to death, eyes are gouged out, and mothers kill their own children—and Shakespeare knew the drama of monstrosity too (and in his work a young woman is raped, tongue cut out, and hands severed, and children are served in pies to their mother, and brother kills brother, and a loving wife is strangled). However, cinema has a verisimilitude that we do not find in live theater: the reality of the theater occurs in our minds, while the reality of film occurs before our eyes. With scenes of ambition, confusion, judgment, pain, and rage without limits or mercy, certain artists show us where we can go, and must not go: our eyes burn and that is when we welcome the water of tears.

I welcome again the talent of Forest Whitaker, and I salute him. I am glad his peers and the world have recognized his talent, but now I do not look forward to ever seeing The Last King of Scotland again. There is an early scene in the film that is telling, possibly prophetic. Idi Amin is injured in a country traffic accident and meets the young doctor who helps him, and the doctor shoots the suffering animal involved in the accident; and the doctor’s act—quick-thinking and efficient—impresses Amin: Amin is impressed by someone who kills when he thinks it necessary. The scenes in which Amin is a figure of African pride, and African mockery (mocking the west), and personal if not African charm, offer some shading, some dimension, just as the film’s scenes of infatuation and intimacy between the doctor and Gillian Anderson’s Sarah, and between the doctor and Kerry Washington’s Kay, offer various degrees of a normality that cannot and does not last in such an atmosphere devoted to one man’s hunger, insecurity, will, and barbaric appreciations. The attractive elements, for me, are not enough.

Daniel Garrett, a New York resident, is a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the founder of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at ABC No Rio and Poets House, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, The Compulsive Reader, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today. Garrett says, “During the days following Forest Whitaker’s winning of the Academy Award, while I contemplated The Last King of Scotland, which I had seen months before, I was also reading Tom Stoppard’s historical play of ideas The Coast of Utopia and Randall Jarrell’s satirical novel Pictures from an Institution, two provocative and refreshing works I hope to finish reading soon. These two works, without denying or sanitizing contradiction, hope, hostility, intelligence, or turmoil, incline me to think about the kind of liberation culture can be, rather than being a reason for regret or remorse.”