The Last King of Scotland

I made a bad mistake. I went to see The Last King of Scotland. I mean I really should have known: a Hollywood movie about Idi Amin. I don’t know what I expected. I guess I was taken in by all the media-hype about Forest Whitaker’s performance. Two nights before the Oscars, I was swept into the frenzy, myself and a packed theater in a white white white Vermont town.

We were treated to what the movie said was a story “based on actual events.” As the horror unfolded, as the young and stupid and careless Scottish doctor becomes part of Amin’s inner circle and slowly realizes Amin’s insanity and his own terrible complicity, I kept thinking, “Could this guy have really existed? He must have, because who would have the cojones to concoct him? I mean, wasn’t what Amin did all on his own bad enough without inventing a sidekick who spurred the madman on to fictional atrocities?”

Alas, this is Hollywood, folks, and the white West. You can’t present Africa without some white dude on-board to interpret. But he didn’t just interpret, this fictional Scottish doctor. No. He fictionally slept with Amin’s wife, and thus inadvertently caused her hideous fictional murder, but inadvertently, innocently, the Innocents Abroad, you know. By the time we get to Entebbe airport, we are really in la la land. An ad hoc torture/ crucifixion/Lakota Sundance in the duty-free shop? Twenty feet away from the Israeli hostages? Where were the news crews? At the ending credits I incredulously muttered “I think I hated that movie,” meeting with hostile looks from nearby movie-goers. I was too stunned to know how I felt in the moment. The lobby was all abuzz about the “intensity” of the film, and Whittaker’s “amazing” performance.

My partner said in misery, “This is the picture of Africa they always have in their minds.” Noble white missionary/doctors, suffering natives, beautiful landscape though, such a waste, such a shame…

We went home and asked Jeeves, and sure enough, there was no such Scot.

Apart from a couple of sinister Brits and Amin’s mention of belonging to the King’s Rifles in Uganda, viewers are given little indication that in the actual person of Idi Amin it is possible for the West to see itself refracted, to see the Heart of Darkness that goes far to create such horrors and then after the fact clucks regretfully at Africa’s hopeless misery. For Amin was a creature of the no-man’s land between Europe and Africa, plucked as a starving feral child off the streets of colonial Kampala, raised in violence, and groomed for his terrible brand of statesmanship, beholden to the West and enamored of its decadence. In trying to constitute some feeling of safety and home for himself, his paranoia and narcissism led him to crush any real or imagined opposition. Britain and Israel were happy to feed him weapons until Entebbe, in order to slaughter his own people, as long as he remained “our man”, like Mobutu in Congo/Zaire, like the Shah of Iran, like Duvalier in Haiti, like Saddam Hussein…

And Whitaker’s performance? The interminable close-ups where you can see every sweating pore? The sustained hysteria? “African savage” indeed. The movie has the beaten-up Scot in the duty-free shop whisper to Amin in smiling revelation: “You’re a child! That’s what makes you so fucking scary.” I have no right to ask, but I do: what self-respecting black man would read such a script and consent to take such a role? When I say I think this film should never have been made, I imagine how preposterous it would be to make a film that concocted a sidekick for Hitler, his “top advisor”, an innocent who happened into the snake-pit and found himself collaborating in the murder of a nation. But we can take those liberties when we make films about African despots, and that’s the point. Africa continues to be for us what we decide she is, and we do not find it outrageous in the least to view such twisted takes on all-too-real events.

Films have been made about Idi Amin. He was a truly outrageous character, and many of his antics on the world-stage were actually quite comic and even brilliant in their own awful way, if anybody remembers. The Last King of Scotland shows none of this, aside from the tossed-off comment during a press-conference that Queen Elizabeth should really consider sleeping with him. Amin actually gathered a bunch of whites for an ornate ceremony in which they were made to bow down to him: but such a scene would have been unacceptable for viewers in our “post-racial”, Obama atmosphere. If a film considered all the elements that went into making Amin, that would be a film worth seeing. Of course in such a film, whites would have to view their own complicity.

4 Responses to “The Last King of Scotland”

  1. Tom D. Says:

    Your blog is very misguided. Wasn’t the fictional Scotish Doctor/ accomplice called a “white monkey” and proven to be pathetic naive child himself? The shoe is on the other foot than you suggest. This is not your typical Hollywood film where the Colonialists win against the inferior Africans. And what about Amin’s comment that he could not work with the British because the supported apartheid in South Africa? Watch the film again. You missed it.

  2. Wally Says:

    I do agree with the white Scottish interpeter part. But I have some questions about your motives and you. Are you a black supremacist racist? You are living in a white state of Vermont. Although liberal it is white. Has this fact made you into a black supremacist racist? Are you from Trinidad a country with a large East Indian population has this may have made you into a black supremacist racist?

    The fact that this Amin killed so many of his people and hated Asians and destroyed so many lives. Still from this article he has no faults. My god. If you are a black supremacist racist then you may be a danger to the lives whites and east indians because of hatred.

    If you had researched further you would have known that the character was based on “English Bob” A man who is still alive today and was much more scary that the movie character was. Even after the overthrow of Amin he was still in contact with him.

    Thank you.


  3. dkmo Says:

    It’s not Hollywood’s interpretation. It’s not even an American interpretation. It’s based on a BOOK of the same name by a BRITISH author. And it’s not so much a history of Amin’s Uganda as it is an examination of human nature and the corruption of power. What you are looking for, a nonfiction / documentary account, is not what this movie is supposed to be.

    The doctor has to be from the Western World so that he shares our belief system and values. Just like what happens in Heart of Darkness, his ordeal in Amin’s Uganada puts everything into question. It’s INCIDENTAL that he’s white. A black Scotsman? Maybe now, but Back then?!

    This is not a great movie. Agreed. Just don’t knock it for the wrong what it is not.

  4. Davy de Verteuil Says:

    I still ask ,where is the evidence of the many thousands he allegedly murdered.
    Forrest Whittaker is just another creature that acts as he looks aka Hollywood. what a disgrace. I read the script since 1976 when the first book was published by penguin. Mugabe own is in the making. Had Nelson Mandela traverse throughout Africa and agitate rather than find us the forgetful act of a truth commission the House nigger would have no script and the IMF WHO Paris Club and WB could not have Bono the mass media and Hollywood mocking us with songs Aid(s) and GM poison.
    ————————————————————————————- .
    Please forward for publishing;

    The US psychological torture system is finally on trial

    America has deliberately driven hundreds, perhaps thousands, of prisoners insane. Now it is being held to account in a Miami court

    Naomi Klein
    Friday February 23, 2007
    The Guardian

    Something remarkable is going on in a Miami courtroom. The cruel methods US interrogators have used since September 11 to “break” prisoners are finally being put on trial. This was not supposed to happen. The Bush administration’s plan was to put José Padilla on trial for allegedly being part of a network linked to international terrorists. But Padilla’s lawyers are arguing that he is not fit to stand trial because he has been driven insane by the government.

    Arrested in May 2002 at Chicago’s O’Hare airport, Padilla, a Brooklyn-born former gang member, was classified as an “enemy combatant” and taken to a navy prison in Charleston, South Carolina. He was kept in a cell 9ft by 7ft, with no natural light, no clock and no calendar. Whenever Padilla left the cell, he was shackled and suited in heavy goggles and headphones. Padilla was kept under these conditions for 1,307 days. He was forbidden contact with anyone but his interrogators, who punctured the extreme sensory deprivation with sensory overload, blasting him with harsh lights and pounding sounds. Padilla also says he was injected with a “truth serum”, a substance his lawyers believe was LSD or PCP.

    According to his lawyers and two mental health specialists who examined him, Padilla has been so shattered that he lacks the ability to assist in his own defence. He is convinced that his lawyers are “part of a continuing interrogation program” and sees his captors as protectors. In order to prove that “the extended torture visited upon Mr Padilla has left him damaged”, his lawyers want to tell the court what happened during those years in the navy brig. The prosecution strenuously objects, maintaining that “Padilla is competent” and that his treatment is irrelevant.

    The US district judge Marcia Cooke disagrees. “It’s not like Mr Padilla was living in a box. He was at a place. Things happened to him at that place.” The judge has ordered several prison employees to testify on Padilla’s mental state at the hearings, which began yesterday. They will be asked how a man who is alleged to have engaged in elaborate anti-government plots now acts, in the words of brig staff, “like a piece of furniture”.

    It’s difficult to overstate the significance of these hearings. The techniques used to break Padilla have been standard operating procedure at Guantánamo Bay since the first prisoners arrived five years ago. They wore blackout goggles and sound-blocking headphones and were placed in extended isolation, interrupted by strobe lights and heavy metal music. These same practices have been documented in dozens of cases of “extraordinary rendition” carried out by the CIA, as well as in prisons in Iraq and Afghanistan.

    Many have suffered the same symptoms as Padilla. According to James Yee, a former army Muslim chaplain at Guantánamo, there is an entire section of the prison called Delta Block for detainees who have been reduced to a delusional state. “They would respond to me in a childlike voice, talking complete nonsense. Many of them would loudly sing childish songs, repeating the song over and over.” All the inmates of Delta Block were on 24-hour suicide watch.

    Human Rights Watch has exposed a US-run detention facility near Kabul known as the “prison of darkness” – tiny pitch-black cells, strange blaring sounds. “Plenty lost their minds,” one former inmate recalled. “I could hear people knocking their heads against the walls and the doors.”

    These standard mind-breaking techniques have never faced scrutiny in an American court because the prisoners in the jails are foreigners and have been stripped of the right of habeas corpus – a denial that, scandalously, was just upheld by a federal appeals court in Washington DC. There is only one reason Padilla’s case is different – he is a US citizen. The administration did not originally intend to bring Padilla to trial, but when his status as an enemy combatant faced a supreme court challenge, the administration abruptly changed course, charging Padilla and transferring him to civilian custody. That makes Padilla’s case unique – he is the only victim of the post-9/11 legal netherworld to face an ordinary US trial.

    Now that Padilla’s mental state is the central issue in the case, the government prosecutors are presented with a problem. The CIA and the military have known since the early 1960s that extreme sensory deprivation and sensory overload cause personality disintegration – that’s the whole point. “The deprivation of stimuli induces regression by depriving the subject’s mind of contact with an outer world and thus forcing it in upon itself. At the same time, the calculated provision of stimuli during interrogation tends to make the regressed subject view the interrogator as a father-figure.” That comes from Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation, a declassified 1963 CIA manual for interrogating “resistant sources”.

    The manual was based on the findings of the agency’s notorious MK-ULTRA programme, which in the 1950s funnelled about $25m to scientists to carry out research into “unusual techniques of interrogation”. One of the psychiatrists who received CIA funding was the infamous Ewen Cameron, of Montreal’s McGill University. Cameron subjected hundreds of psychiatric patients to large doses of electroshock and total sensory isolation, and drugged them with LSD and PCP. In 1960 Cameron gave a lecture at the Brooks air force base in Texas, in which he stated that sensory deprivation “produces the primary symptoms of schizophrenia”.

    There is no need to go so far back to prove that the US military knew full well that it was driving Padilla mad. The army’s field manual, reissued just last year, states: “Sensory deprivation may result in extreme anxiety, hallucinations, bizarre thoughts, depression, and antisocial behaviour” – as well as “significant psychological distress”.

    If these techniques drove Padilla insane, that means the US government has been deliberately driving hundreds, possibly thousands, of prisoners insane around the world. What is on trial in Florida is not one man’s mental state. It is the whole system of US psychological torture.

    · Naomi Klein’s book on disaster capitalism will be published this spring; a version of this article appears in the Nation

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