I dreamed that Idi Amin was sitting at the end of my bed. It was the
night before we started shooting and there he was like some enormous,
shiny black python—placid but full of threat. Eyes flicking about,
just breathing—but breathing in the slightly animal, gutteral
way which I had been told always presaged his most violent outbursts.
I never sleep well
the night before shooting begins. But this gave me the chills.
The Last King of Scotland is not a bio-pic of Amin—it’s
a largely fictional story in which he appears—but his presence
has always loomed large over it, much as his image—the very picture
of the savage, capricious, cannibalistic dictator seemed to fulfil some
kind of mythic requirement for the Western press in the 1970s. He was
the playground boogeyman to school children of my age and songs (at
least one of them comic), books and articles flooded out about him and
his horrific regime.
The first time we went to Uganda, on a research trip, I was nervous
about what the Ugandans would say about our portrayal of their most
famous leader (and until Nelson Mandela, the most widely known African
in the world, I suspect). What I found was that to them he is a semimythical
figure. Nobody seems to really know the truth about him. Even simple
he was born, what his father did—are up for grabs with various
versions circulating. Everything about him is accreted with myth and
So the idea that we wanted to use Amin and various events from his
life in our fictional film didn’t faze the Ugandans. They already
see him as a semi-fictional character.
The other thing that struck me was how ambivalent the Ugandan relationship
with Amin is. They can hold the two extremes of his character in their
minds at once. They can laugh at him (and with him) telling you hilarious
stories about his antics and the way he humiliated the English (a favourite
topic), then pause for a moment and inform you that Amin was responsible
for the death of a father, a brother, a cousin…. Even his detractors
often have a degree of pride in him: he stood up to the British, he
made us feel proud to be African, he understood us. Harder to comprehend
are the numerous, often educated,
sensitive people who think that despite the massacres
and indiscriminate brutalities, he was the best leader
Uganda ever had. One quickly realises that one’s “Western” perspective
is inadequate to understand the relationship Amin had with his people.
I’ll never forget the occasion when I asked my Ugandan adviser—a
brilliant playwright called Charles Malekwa—whether
he believed all the stories about Amin’s obsession with
witchcraft. “Of course,” said Charles (who when he
was a boy had once danced for Amin himself—and been handed a
great wage of Ugandan shillings by the man himself for his trouble). “But,” I
enquired, “what does a witchdoctor
do? What kind of influence did he have over Amin?” Charles paused,
as though he was weighing up whether to tell me something or not. “Well,” he
said slowly and seriously, “there
was a story which everyone at that time knew. Amin asked his witchdoctor
what he should do if he wanted to be president for life and the witchdoctor
said to him: ‘You must eat the heart
of the one you love the most.’” Charles paused. “
So Amin killed his favourite son and ate his heart.” I still
remember my sense of shock when he said this. I could literally not
anything more depraved, more awful.
Incredulous, I asked Charles if he believed this had really happened.
Charles just shrugged again, “It’s not
really important whether it happened or not. The main thing is that
time everyone in the country believed it was true—that
he was capable of this kind of thing.”
Some Ugandans even seemed to think that Amin was still alive. When
we filmed Amin’s opening scene—giving
a speech at a huge political rally in the country—we gathered
together about 3,000 extras from the local villages. After a few hours
of shooting, I noticed one of the assistant directors having a heated
discussion with a local man. Apparently the man—along with many
of his fellow villagers—thought that the real Amin had come to
the village on a political tour—and
he wanted to know why he kept repeating his speech over and over again.
It was a testament to Forest Whitaker’s performance—but
also, I think, to the mythic power of Amin.