In Uganda, 'Last King of Scotland' Generates Blend of Pride and Pain

Forest Whitaker, center, who won a Best Actor Oscar on Sunday for his portrayal of Uganda's bloodthirsty former dictator, Idi Amin, visited a school in Masindi, Uganda, last week.
Forest Whitaker, center, who won a Best Actor Oscar on Sunday for his portrayal of Uganda's bloodthirsty former dictator, Idi Amin, visited a school in Masindi, Uganda, last week. (Associated Press)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 27, 2007

KAMPALA, Uganda, Feb. 26 -- She was 11 time zones away from Hollywood, but movie buff Marion E. Busingye could not wait to see if "The Last King of Scotland" -- a rare and terrifying look at Uganda's bloody political history -- would win an Oscar.

So she stayed up. And up. And up. And up.

Shortly after 8 a.m., she got her reward: Forest Whitaker won the Best Actor award for his portrayal -- by turns charming, paranoid and shockingly cruel -- of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.

"Yeah!" she shouted while slumping groggily into her couch, recalled Busingye, 33. Then she fell asleep.

So climaxed nine days of extraordinary attention to a film that, though intended mainly for Western audiences, has captivated Ugandans unaccustomed to seeing their lives portrayed on the big screen. And Uganda is just the latest of a string of African nations, including South Africa, Rwanda, Kenya and Sierra Leone, to be featured in award-winning films in recent years as the continent became a popular source of fresh story lines.

"From an African point of view, I'm excited," said Busingye, managing director of Uganda's only multiplex theater, which also is showing the Oscar-nominated "Blood Diamond," another popular film set in Africa. "They're getting better," she said of Hollywood's efforts.

Since Feb. 17, when Whitaker attended the premiere of "The Last King of Scotland" here with President Yoweri Museveni, the movie has spawned front-page stories, painful reminiscences and occasional rebukes while also acquainting younger Ugandans with a history their parents and teachers had rarely discussed with such vividness.

Hawkers ran out of pirated copies of the movie. Weekend showings at the multiplex were sold out. The book version, though substantially different, flew out the doors of bookstores, as did a more sober, factual account of the Amin era, "A State of Blood," by Amin's former health minister, Henry Kyemba.

The stir has provoked what amounts to a public relations counteroffensive by Amin's relatives, who have criticized the movie for portraying the former leader as more vicious than he was in real life. But many other Ugandans, including Kyemba, voice the opposite complaint -- that Amin got off too easily in Whitaker's portrayal because the actor humanized a dictator many here recall as monstrous.

Kyemba has been outspoken about the film's many deviations from fact, but even he conceded that the real story might not have made for a popular movie. "The things are so horrendous," he said.

Amin, a crude but charismatic army officer, took power in a 1971 coup. By the time he was driven from power in 1979, his regime had killed an estimated 300,000 Ugandan intellectuals, opposition figures and members of rival ethnic groups, and the economically important Indian community had been forced into exile. A country once considered a bastion of culture and learning in East Africa had become an international pariah.

Amin also had a flair for needling Western sensibilities, as when he announced that he was not merely president-for-life of Uganda and "Lord of All the Beasts of the Earth and Fishes of the Sea," but also king of Scotland. In 1974, Amin proclaimed himself the head of a Scottish resistance movement calling for secession from Britain. The Scottish national anthem was often played at Ugandan state functions under Amin, and a special military detail marched in kilts.

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