An adviser to the Ugandan president tells the story behind the making of The Last King of Scotland—and has a surprising conversation with Forest Whitakerby John Nagenda / January 14, 2007 / Leave a comment
Some time in January 2005, somebody introduced me to Cowboy Films. The company’s owners wanted me to act as conduit to the President of Uganda, Yoweri Kaguta Museveni. They wanted to meet him to express their deep wish to film Giles Foden’s novel about Idi Amin, The Last King of Scotland, in Uganda.
Two and a half decades earlier, Museveni had helped to exile Amin—as capricious a figure as ever ruled a country. How often have I sat in a taxi around the world—in India, China, the US and Europe (especially in London)—and, upon saying I was from Uganda, heard the rejoinder: Amin! It used to infuriate me, until I learnt to live with it (it became easier when the monster died four years ago). In any case, we had finally slung him out by force of arms back in 1979. Despite its title, The Last King of Scotland is about Amin, self-styled “life president” of Uganda. How strange can you get? His life presidency lasted nine years.
Idi Amin Dada, field marshal, Conqueror of the British Empire (CBE) – he had several other similar honours, all bestowed by himself—was a considerable figure by many measurements, including girth. He had a huge bellyful of a laugh which rolled through him, seemingly denoting bonhomie and geniality, but which could pass into deadliness with the speed of cloud shadows scampering across the ground. (The film has a wonderful example of this within minutes of its start.) In the nine years he bestrode Uganda, he laid waste to its peoples: killing, pillaging, raping, torturing, imprisoning, kidnapping, robbing.
Ugandans have always been an easy, friendly people. But under Amin they lost their smiles. They were permanently scared, not knowing who would be forced to report on whom. Some of us lucky enough to be outside the country would return, on some errand or other, and it would be as if we walked among the living dead. Fear had put a veil between us and the people we knew. We were resented, or felt resented, because we had been lucky enough to get out, and could come and go We felt guilty about having that privilege. No matter how loudly we laughed with our friends (for laughing is easier than smiling), it was as if we were slinking about until our return flights. Oh God, the luxury of relaxing back in your seat as the plane roared down the tarmac at Entebbe!
To see a nation lose this stain is a wonderful thing. There are still parts of our country that have not managed it, but most have. But I am jumping ahead of myself.
Overseas, Amin was often thought a buffoon, but no complete buffoon can be so deadly. What he quickly learned, for he was a quick learner although uneducated, was that buffoonery could be a mask for darker deeds. He and the other great tyrant of this period, the extravagantly bemedalled General Bokassa of the Central African Republic, only looked like buffoons from the outside; they were anything but to their godforsaken peoples.
There have been movies about Amin before. Perhaps the best known is Raid on Entebbe, which portrayed Amin and his countrymen as simpletons of the worst cardboard cut-out type. I took no time in asking the Cowboy Films people whether their take on Uganda would be the same. They looked offended. “Certainly not,” said director Kevin Macdonald. “What would be the sense in that?” Macdonald had already won an Oscar and a Bafta, respectively, for the documentaries One Day in September (about the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes at the Berlin Olympics) and Touching the Void. He seemed young and guileless, but behind his well-arranged features there was obviously a fierce determination.
I was soon won over. “Tomorrow I will take you to see the president,” I announced. I gave the group one more test: “Please assemble here [at the Sheraton Kampala Hotel]. Gentlemen to wear ties. And shoes, not sandals. Jackets without exception. Ladies, frocks or dresses, not jeans!” The next morning they appeared, bright and scrubbed and wearing funny ties, probably of suede or other strange materials. The girls were more proper. I wore a suit and a forbidding expression: “Now show me your nails please!” But they had their revenge later, when I asked for a cameo part in the movie: “You can play the chief torturer,” said Macdonald. I declined!
The meeting turned out to be a stroll. Lisa Bryer, the owner of Cowboy and senior producer, turned on her charm for the president; it was returned in measure. I had warned Cowboy under no circumstance to ask for funding, as it would be embarrassing since we didn’t have any. Now, to my dismay, I heard Lisa say: “Mr Nagenda forbade us to ask for financial help, Your Excellency. But we are working on a tiny budget. Could you at least let us off VAT?” I made a slitting motion in her direction. Yes, certainly, said the President. “Sir, what about army materiel and troops when required in our film?” Yes. She could have asked for the country and got it! And then the president concluded by saying: “Any problems you get, talk to Mr Nagenda. He will be our co-ordinator.” The president had immediately grasped the benefits that would follow from the film being a success. It would help tourism, employment, Uganda as a major filming destination (The Last King of Scotland was the first full-length movie made in Uganda). It would present an opportunity for our actors to appear on a world stage, and for budding directors and producers to learn their craft.
In the event, we got all that and more. The Last King of Scotland is making splashes across the world. It has had superb reviews wherever it has been shown. Kevin Macdonald has yet again enhanced his already considerable reputation. His cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, created shots of Uganda that convey the country’s beauty with calm mastery. The music, much of it local, thumps the action ever forwards, as if beating inside the chest. Above all, the film captures the finally unbreakable spirit of Uganda and Ugandans. They survived Amin, as well as the man who made him, and whom he displaced – the now late Apollo Milton Obote. They survived terror on a mammoth scale to finally welcome in Yoweri Museveni. No wonder he stood side by side with his young guests from Cowboy Films and smiled from ear to ear.
And then into town blew Forest Whitaker—the black American star who plays Amin. I can’t say I hadn’t been warned. Whitaker is a fine figure of a man, well over six foot in his bare feet. Perhaps a bit shorter, but not by much, than the towering Idi Amin (though I never measured Amin). He brought with him a shyness you would not associate with the dictator. But any shyness fled when he started playing the part of Amin. It was a staggering transformation. The evening of his arrival, a supper was arranged for the giant and me to meet. He was very soft-spoken, I louder. The others, including his handler, were quiet as mice; watching. I did not let on that I had never heard of our hero, until Cowboy had briefed me about him. At Fang Fang Chinese restaurant, arguably the best eating house in Kampala, we forged a camaraderie which surprised me, especially since Forest didn’t touch a drop of alcohol. (I did—and more.)
Where I was raised, in Uganda, we had funny ideas about black people in America, then called negroes. We thought they were very backward, probably because they had been slaves – which wasn’t, admittedly, their fault. But then why were they so lazy? And why, in films, did they roll their eyes so, as if their comprehension was lacking? I had to meet these people one day and see what to make of them and perhaps, who knows, befriend them. I had the shock of my life when I arrived in New York. The negroes had an even lower view of Africans than we of them! They considered us savages. In Chicago where I was giving a talk to some disadvantaged teenagers, one of them asked the question, “Please sir, is it true you Africans still live in trees? And that if we came there you would eat us?” The whole class hollered! It was 1965. From that day in Chicago I made a resolve to travel all over the United States, preaching the similarity of black people, particularly in the way the white world had treated us. When I took the idea to Life magazine they wrote me a contract for my story. But because of what took place back in Uganda in 1966—Milton Obote’s attack on Uganda’s leading monarchy—I was unable to deliver my article on time, missing the Life deadline. (It did finally see the light of day in Race magazine in London a couple of years later.) The Kabaka (King) of my Buganda tribe—once a country in itself—was attacked at his palace and hundreds of his people slaughtered. Who did it? Idi Amin, then commander of the Uganda army, who five years later was to overthrow Obote. In any case, since 1965 I have believed in the common cause of black people. Forest Whitaker is my brother, and to me at any rate it was quite clear at Fang Fang and at the Kabira Club, where the whole Cowboy crew stayed. Not everyone agrees on this. For example, the American writer James Baldwin went to Ghana searching for it, never did, and wrote a savage tract dismissing it out of hand.
For lack of a better classification, perhaps, The Last King of Scotland is sometimes called a thriller. Thriller? It is very thrilling indeed, but it is more than a thriller in the mould of John Buchan’s Thirty-nine Steps or Ian Fleming’s Bond canon. It all comes down to the acting and the actors. The leading ones were consistently spot on, but even the local—and largely untried—ones sometimes surprised. Stephen Rwangyezi was superb in his underplaying as the minister of health. But there were others, too many to mention. The peerless leading quartet were, of course: Forest Whitaker, James McAvoy (co-star, playing the doctor Nicholas Garrigan), Gillian Anderson and Kerry Washington (playing Idi Amin’s wife). McAvoy had a difficult role, that of the naive young Scottish doctor who comes to Uganda on a whim, and soon falls under the monster’s influence. But he played the part to perfection, a perfect foil for the menacing yet jovial Whitaker. It is a great film, although for me the ending was too abrupt and quick.
But standing out from everyone is Forest Whitaker/Idi Amin. He gets into the mass murderer-cum-genial giant in a way that almost frightens. I had asked him at the Chinese restaurant whether he would play Amin as a raging tyrant, destroying everything in sight. He looked surprised. “Of course, Amin is a hero,” he whispered, as soon as the starters had arrived. Eh? The last thing on earth I wanted was the old slaughterer being played with sympathy and, on top of that, admiration! I squared my shoulders. It was true, I said, that when Amin first took over power in Uganda he was feted by many. And that he had an undeniable geniality which, with his largeness of body, and his infectious love of life (would that he had spared more of it!) was attractive to many. Also, for a man of hardly any education, the way he picked things up, including the English language, was staggering. What might he have been with more advantages at birth, such as education and family affection? But when ruling started being difficult, it was as if hot devils exploded within him. The killing started and quickly shot out of control. This man was the opposite of a hero. Whether Forest listened to any of this and was diverted from his first reading, I know not. The answer is plain in the Amin he brought to the screen: a frightening monster, but a child of God. For Forest Whitaker, a new page has opened, far away from the genial offerings of the past. Now he can play different tunes on huge and not necessarily lovable figures. What will this do to Whitaker as a person? Might he, after all, grow to hate, from a different entry point, Idi Amin Dada, as those millions who already do so?