Monday, October 23, 2006

The Last King of Scotland

No, not James I, but the late, unlamented Idi Amin Dada of Uganda, is the focus of the new film The Last King of Scotland.

While the movie is clearly fiction, the real life and times of one of Africa's most notorious big men are brought to life in the movie, beginning with the overthrow of Uganda's previous dictator, to the economically disastrous expulsion of Uganda's "Asian" business class, to the militarily diastrous decision to provide assistance to Palestinian hijackers at Entebbe, the film reconstructs the timeline of Amin's bloody tyranny through the eyes of a Scottish doctor who manages to ingratiate himself to Amin.

Amin, of course, was no stranger to film during his lifetime, having appeared as himself in the bizarre documentary Idi Amin Dada, where he plays the accordion, mounts a mock invasion of the Golan Heights, and terrifies his subordinates, all while playing the role of a large, jolly man who feels wounded at being "misunderstood" at being portrayed as a bloodthirsty buffoon an unsympathetic Western press. Amin certainly didn't help his own cause, however, by murdering his political opponents, launching ill advised military actions against Uganda's neighbors. What's more, Amin's penchant for self-aggrandizing made him a popular target for Western reporters looking to portray him as an ignorant lout. Consider his modest, self-described title:

His Excellency President for Life Field Marshal Al Hadji Dr. Idi Amin, VC, DSO, MC, King of Scotland, Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea, and Conqueror of the British Empire in Africa in General and Uganda in Particular
His service in the King's African Rifles notwithstanding, Idi Amin's chances of being awarded the Victoria Cross were roughly equivalent to my chances of being Miss Venezuela. It was Amin's bufoonish side and boyish charm that unnervingly contrasted with his explosive temper, total paranoia and bloodthirsty appetite for revenge, making him equal only to Mobutu Sese Seko as the most notorious of Africa's big men.

So what did I think of the movie? As a dictator-phile, I was pleasantly surprised by Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Amin, delighted that he paid such close attention to Amin's own mannerisms and body language from Idi Amin Dada. I was less enthralled with the Scottish doctor as narrative device, the romantic and espionage subplots, et al., and look forward to the day when Hollywood is ready to tackle the dictator biopic with the seriousness and breadth of vision it deserves.

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