David Stairs | Essays

That (Other) 1970's: The Last King of Scotland

Faber & Faber book cover, The Last King of Scotland, detail of illustraton by Steve Caplin, 1998.

The Last King of Scotland, director Kevin McDonald's film about Idi Amin's notorious presidency (1971-79), recently opened in Uganda to great fanfare. The VIP screening took place on a Saturday evening at Kampala's Cineplex Theatre, with Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (who returned to Uganda with the liberating Tanzanian army in 1979) in attendance, as well as Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy, and many of the Ugandan nationals who'd been cast in the film. Not that there'd be too many surprises for the average person: the première, with admission at 11,000 shillings ($7) per person, was not targeted to the average Ugandan. Instead, most people were seeing the film on bootleg DVDs (at 8,000 shillings or $5 apiece) that had been circulating in Kampala for weeks. Only days after its initial Ugandan screening, the film was showing in local movie shabeen for as little as 500 shillings (30¢).

But to say that this is less than a national phenomenon in Uganda would be an understatement. Previous movies about Africa familiar to international audiences — Out of Africa, The Constant Gardener — are often considered "settler literature" (telling more about the European experience of Africa than about Africa itself), and were actually shot in Kenya. This newest film is the first major production made in Uganda to receive widespread attention, and it had the local Daily Monitor boasting that, "...with the exposure The Last King of Scotland has given Uganda, it could also become a leading player in the movie industry in the region."

And why not? Not only did Whitaker win the Oscar for Best Actor, but dozens of Ugandan actors received a credit line. A local choir, famous dance troupe, and Kampala's favorite house band are featured in it too — not to mention an army of colorful local personalities, including my doctor who plays a British journalist.

I was a student in London in the 70s, a decade of glam rock and disco, and I distinctly remember thinking that Uganda was the last place on earth I ever wanted to visit. My friend Quentin Caron, now a well-known landscape designer, did a passable imitation of "Big Daddy" Amin. It's not that human rights atrocities were any more funny then than they are now, as much as the fact that the man himself — who loved all things Scottish — fueled endless parodies on Saturday Night Live. In fact, Amin once had a London jeweler fashion him a copy of the Victoria's Cross (an award he'd not, in fact, earned) to add to his collection of personal military adornments.

Nile Center, Kampala, scene of mass tortures. Photograph by David Stairs, 2007.

The story of Amin's eight-year dictatorship is filled with dramatic moments. As the initial euphoria over Amin's arrival shifted to the certain knowledge that not only opposition but also loyal supporters were being killed, long-suffering Ugandans settled into a fatalistic waiting-game. The dictator's reign of terror played out on a world stage where Ugandans weren't the only victims: Amin humiliated the British, befriended Libyan leader Muammar al-Gaddafi, and challenged the Israelis. Along the way, his State Research Bureau gruesomely murdered hundreds of thousands of his fellow countrymen and expelled countless others.

Crested Towers, an Idi Amin building project. Photograph by David Stairs, 2007.

African politics have long been dominated by a tribal model of governance: so how does ultimate power come to reside in the hands of a man like Amin? Big men with deep voices (and at 6'6" and 250 pounds, Amin was indeed that) are the African equivalent of a 6'4" Texan in America (ironically, Forest Whitaker is from Texas too). Not unlike a Texas preacher, there's a scene in the film where Amin whips up an enthusiastic crowd by simply deploying his charisma and booming voice. Add to physical stature the resentment and unbridled ambition of a fatherless boy; schooling by the military; suppressing the Mau-Mau rebellion in Kenya in the 1950s as a member of the King's Africa Rifles; and, it's easy to see how a shrewd thug could out-maneuver some of the country's more educated players, like Professor Apollo Milton Obote.

The screenplay's fidelity to Giles Foden's book (winner of the 1998 Whitbread Prize for a first novel, and enormously popular at the time of its publication) is oddly uneven. Clearly, a certain amount of telescoping is bound to occur when a period of eight years is squeezed into 120 minutes: but what's tricky is what happens when historical fact is sacrificed for dramatic effect. Expulsion of all Asiatics happened in 1972, for example, shortly after Amin took over. (Amin's edict principally targeted some 60,000 Asians from the Indian subcontinent who held British passports.) Yet the Palestinian hijacking of an Air France jetliner did not take place immediately following this event, but four years later — in 1976. It precipitated the international crisis at Entebbe airport that resulted in a daring Israeli commando raid, making a fuming Idi Amin look even more ridiculous.

Entrance to Ugandan Parliament building. Photograph by David Stairs, 2007.

Kevin McDonald insisted [on record] that his film be shot in Uganda, despite pressure to locate it in Kenya, or even South Africa. He argued that the feeling would be difficult to capture anywhere else, and that Kampala, with much of its 70s architecture still intact, was the perfect setting. The pool at the Sheraton Hotel, and the entrances to Parliament are scripted into key scenes. Other structures shown in the movie (Obote's UPC building and Amin's Nile Conference Center, where many of his victims were tortured) are still in use today.

Swimming pool at the Sheraton Hotel. Photograph by David Stairs, 2007.

Visually, the film is deeply faithful to its featured country. The opening shots of an overland bus ride perfectly capture the gorgeous scenery, visualizing the life in many Ugandan small towns. The director and cinematographer also went to great lengths to reinforce the pictorial quality of 1970s footage: film quality is grainy and favors the red end of the spectrum, as so many movies from this period tend to do. McDonald won an earlier Oscar for his documentary work, and he is intimately familiar with the dictator's newsreels — from his celebrated ride on a palanquin borne by white men, to his frequently riotous press conferences. Amin's appetite for cars, women, and food were renowned, and have been accurately captured in this film. Less clear is the justification [again on record] for his close ties to the Arab world: unlike his Ugandan predecessors, Amin was a Muslim.

There's a scene early on in the recent James Bond release, Casino Royale (which ostensibly takes place just before Amin came to power), in which a group of Europeans visit a guerilla camp somewhere in Africa. The words "Mbale, Uganda" flash across the screen, identifying the alleged location: in the real world, however, the peaceful Mbale region has never been the site of guerilla activity. (It also bears mention that the entire faux-Ugandan scene in Casino Royale was actually not filmed in Africa at all, but in the Bahamas.) Obviously, things like chronology and geography share blurry boundaries in the film industry, where history can be rewritten in an instant. And indeed, some may feel that The Last King of Scotland chronicles a decade better off forgotten: but I'd argue the opposite. Here, at least, an attempt is made to tell the story against a backdrop of Uganda as it really looks, as it once was. And hopefully, as it never will be again.

David Stairs, founding editor of Design-Altruism-Project, is working in Africa for Designers Without Borders through June 2007.

Posted in: Arts + Culture, Media, Politics, Social Good

Comments [7]

This is my favorite movie that I've seen this year. Forrest Whitaker was brilliant. Every scene of the movie I was on edge, feeling the threat of Amin and wondering when he was going to go over the edge. Everything about the movie was fantastic... it had a 70s feel to it, even with regard to the cinematography.

Doug Karr

the book cover is lovely! Isn't it?

The movie is fantastic, and I agree about the cinematography - it's brilliant.


It's a bit of a relief to hear from David that the movie is regarded as a faithful portrait of Uganda. I found myself simultaneously repelled by Whitaker's protrayal of Amin, and seduced by the newly chic-looking (post-Wallpaper) architecture and incredibly hip (post-David Byrne/Paul Simon) soundtrack: the disconnect made me feel a little guilty. It is still a little disconcerting to enjoy the soundtrack on my car's cd player while I drive around doing my mundane 2007 Saturday errands.)
Michael Bierut

Faithful to Uganda, Michael, but as I complained, not terribly faithful to the much better book. The garish qualities seem to be true to the period; just catch an old episode of Columbo if you want to see how much the world has changed. And Whitaker's portrayal of Amin's descent into madness is stunning. Even Museveni, who knew Amin, and claims he hasn't been in a movie theatre in 47 years said, "I salute Mr Whitaker. He was a real Amin-- the mannerisms, the alternating between bufoonery and devilsh cunning. That was what he was like." Taking the Ugandan tendency to be polite into consideration, this is pretty high praise.

The complaints I've heard relate to the film's jerky pacing and excessive brutality. My wife feels the story could have been told less sensationally, lurching as it does from one dramatic moment to the next, and been more successful. In the book Garrigan is less the horny party boy, ultimately not just saving himself, but redeeming himself as he returns to Kampala, much like Museveni, with the Tanzanian Defense Forces.

So kind of a mixed blessing: a successful novel based upon a frightening period in history that inspires an unfaithful but lushly filmed adaptation that brings money and attention to a poor-and-out-of-the-way- place. On balance, a plus for Uganda.
david stairs

Giles Foden writes about seeing his novel adapted here:

John C

I agree with you, I feel as if many movies don't cherish the integrity of historic accuracy as well as location accuracy. These important facts from history should not be freely altered in order to dramatize the movie. But I like that this movie references to the original movie made in the 70's, I find it touching. I feel like the director is trying to honor the original movie. As for Whitaker, his portrayal of the character was more than applaud able, His character is complex and powerful. The cinematography is outstanding in this movie, from the camera angles to costume design. This movie was really brought to life.
Courtney Govea

David Stairs David Stairs founded Designers Without Borders in 2001 while on a Fulbright research grant to Uganda. In 2006, he became founding editor of Design Altruism Project, an online experiment dedicated to addressing the shifting character of professional design practice. Stairs’ latest portrait was taken by his son Chris one morning at the City Market in Bangalore where he was a Hindu for three hours. He teaches graphic design and design history at Central Michigan University.

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