Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.
The Last King of Scotland is the story of two monumental egos, one näive and one maniacal, who come together and enjoy (for a time) a complex, destructive dance. Forrest Whitaker has been waiting for this role all his life and gives a career performance as the unpredictable Idi Amin Dada. Amin is an enormous character, in every way, and in order for Whitaker’s towering interpretation not to topple over, James McAvoy has to push back as hard as he can in his portrayal of the fictional Dr. Nicholas Garrigan. The balance between these two is essential to the film’s success. Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan have adapted Giles Foden’s novel in a tight dual-character study, set in the turbulence of 1970s Uganda. The real historical events of the story provide a sobering irony for the central narrative of the relationship between the military dictator and the novice physician.
The premise of the story is this: a bored and spoiled young Scot graduates from medical school and immediately flees his stultifying surroundings in search of something more exciting. He selects Uganda at random, after spinning the globe and rejecting Canada, heading out “to make a difference,” and arrives on the eve of Amin’s seizure of power. Garrigan’s (James McAvoy) combined ignorance and arrogance take him to Africa with complete confidence and a total lack of preparation. He is a neo-colonialist in some ways, particularly in his sense of entitlement and superiority, and perhaps it is not coincidental that the two countries he considers for his adventure were formerly part of the British Empire. Late in the film, Garrigan is confronted with the accusation that he decided to “go to Africa and play the white man with the natives.”
He is on a lark, and his cocky euphoria lasts well into the movie, enabling him to make the judgments that bring him into Amin’s coterie. Garrigan is a randy young doctor, who finds married women especially appealing. He has a one-night stand with a woman on the bus, as he makes his way to the medical mission where he finds Sarah Merrit (Gillian Anderson), married to Garrigan’s colleague. She is not insensitive to his charms, but she does manage to resist his advances. The scene foreshadows his involvement with Kay Amin (Kerry Washington) at the same time that it shows Garrigan’s selfishness. He will without a second thought betray a friend for the sake of self-gratification.
His ego is what enables Amin to seduce him away from the clinic with the lure of an opportunity “to create a new health service” for Uganda, heady stuff for an untried recent graduate. And seduction is what Amin does best, with a voice like dark honey and an affable charm that disarms almost everyone. When he strides onto the stage, the first time we see him, he presents himself as a man of the people—“I am you,” he says, in a voice full of heartfelt sincerity. He speaks of Black power, and he tells the people to be proud. Who wouldn’t cheer? And they keep cheering as he joins in a traditional dance, carrying a shield and wearing his general’s field dress, bridging the gap between Uganda’s past and future. He shows them that he is one of them. There is the sense that “I am he as you are he as you are me and we are all together”—he is the walrus. There is a happy honeymoon period under his regime.
The honeymoon lasts longer for Garrigan than for anyone because he is blithely undiscerning. He takes Amin and Amin’s gifts at face value, and thereby becomes steadily more complicit in Amin’s atrocities. For example, because he trusts Amin, he sees and misinterprets a meeting between the Minister of Health, Jonah Wasswa (Stephen Rwangyezi), and a pharmaceuticals executive. Only after the Minister “disappears” does Garrigan’s confidence in Amin begin to crack. Rwangyezi, in an almost silent performance, conveys his alarm and fear by his stiff postures and movements and the constantly wary look in his eyes. Events subsequent to the disappearance send Garrigan to Nigel Stone (Simon Burney). Garrigan is a little boy who isn’t having fun anymore, and he wants to go home. Burney’s faded, tired, rumpled, and threadbare career diplomat is unmoved and exhibits an unsympathetic and unyielding attention to duty—he demands something in exchange from Amin’s “white monkey.”
The tension rises significantly and steadily from this point because Garrigan has had the scales removed from his eyes. His meeting with Stone includes the first of the film’s three encapsulated examples of Amin’s brutality, for which it received its “R” rating. These examples are indispensable because without them, Amin appears to be a big, petulant kid with a talent for twisting words and actions. He is deeply wounded when he insists that Garrigan calls himself Amin’s closest advisor, but Garrigan has made no such claim. Amin has. Amin blames Garrigan for the explusion of the Asians, saying Garrigan should have persuaded him not to do it. As Amin’s childishness emerges, so does Garrigan’s recede. In the final stages of this dance, Garrigan underestimates the Last King, mistakes his irrationality and paranoia as lack of intelligence, thinks he can outsmart him. But Amin is not stupid. He is not deceived. He knows everything, or has minions who do, and that is what makes him so dangerous. Garrigan and Amin have appeared as playmates, but the final turn in their trajectory is a powerful scene in which a Garrigan electrified with anger stands beside a deeply bored Amin, for whom Deep Throat is a soporific. The rush to the end is in motion.
Amin’s chief of security, Masanga (Abby Mukiibi), is another nearly speechless character, whose gift is in watching. He embodies secret police everywhere, silent and sinister, able to communicate to Garrigan with a look that he knows what Garrigan is doing, that he is biding his time until Garrigan makes a mistake. In the end, it is not Amin and Garrigan who decide the outcome. It is Masanga and Dr. Junju (David Oyelowo), as exemplars of evil and good. While Amin charms and entertains the press and suggests himself as a statesman, behind the scenes, Masanga and Junju are playing for Garrigan’s life, for different reasons. The decent and moral Junju tells Garrigan that, “alive you might be able to redeem yourself.” He speaks for us, who cannot believe Garrigan’s stupidity and who cannot like him, yet nevertheless do not believe he deserves what Amin is having done to him.
The physical suffering in this moment, inflicted on the man whom Amin called his own son, is a metaphor for the violence he unleashed as the “father of this nation.” He called himself Idi Amin Dada, told the people to trust him as a father, fashioned himself their deliverer, and then betrayed that trust, managing dissent by slaughtering the opposition and bringing on financial ruin by banishing the business class. The Last King of Scotland shows the systematic destruction of Uganda under his stewardship.
James “Thunder” Early (Eddie Murphy) serenades the girls.
Some adaptations make the move from stage to screen better than others, mindful that the medium has to be accommodated. Dreamgirls is adapted from a 25-year-old Broadway musical, and it does not pay enough consideration to the passage of time and the shift in medium. This is an adaptation that makes a person wish to have seen the original live, certain that a lot was lost in the translation. In many ways, the filmed version is lifeless. Definitely, it is pale and listless. But it has three reasons to live: Jennifer Hudson, Eddie Murphy, and Danny Glover.
Dreamgirls is a thinly disguised allegory of Motown: Dreamettes/Supremes; Deena/Diana; Curtis Taylor Jr./Barry Gordy Jr.; The Campbell Connection/The Jackson Five; Cleopatra/The Wiz—even the 10th-anniversary celebration of Rainbow Records stands in for Motown 25, with Deena dedicating a song to Curtis, as Diana once acknowledged Barry. It’s kind of a game built into the narrative: how many references can we identify? But thinness is the problem here. Even an intentionally fluffy musical has to be well-executed fluff. Dreamgirls takes far too long to remember it’s a musical—the bulk of the songs are in the second half—so that when the first two songs show up, they’re kind of a surprise and almost out of place. And while we all know the peculiar suddenness with which characters burst into song in a musical, there usually is something said or done that attempts to serve as a transition. In Dreamgirls, the lead-in to one number is the excruciatingly embarrassing “We’ve all got pain, Effie.” Egad. The only other moment that comes even close to being as clumsy is the lame waving at the end of the farewell song, when Dreamgirl and audience arms sway slowly in a bit that works far better in The Sound of Music or at rock concerts where fans at least are armed with lighters.
The performances are what could save this movie, but the ensemble cast is seriously out of balance. On the weak side, there is Jamie Foxx, whose Curtis Taylor Jr. is supposed to be the villain of the piece, but the performance is neither understated malice nor overstated Oil Can Harry—would that there were a handlebar moustache—and we are left with a lethargic walk through instead of a smarmy and charismatic demonstration of personality. Ditto Beyoncé Knowles (Deena Jones). She is beautiful, talented, and over-exposed—and if she is supposed to make a convincing case for Deena’s supremacy over Effie, she fails utterly. The performance is competent, if superficial, but too cautious, and it needs to leave no one doubting that it makes sense for Deena/Diana to eclipse Effie/Florence (Ballard). Beyoncé (or writer/director Bill Condon) instead leaves that to the editor, who shows a pretty white boy in an audience admiring Deena (ergo she’s the one who will sell) and to the costume designer, who puts Effie in a mermaidish evening gown and in a red vinyl thing, both of which are hopelessly unsuited to her figure. One dress makes far more of Deena’s cleavage, when clearly Effie has the girls that dreams are made on.
And not only that, but Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson is a huge talent. In addition to her lovely face and generous curves, she has acting ability and an enormous voice, and she knows how to use them. She entertains with Effie’s attitude, is convincingly angry and playfully flirty, and is a joy and thrill to listen to. She is the best thing about this movie. Happily, she is not the only thing. Danny Glover gives a straight-up, solid performance as the straight-up, solid manager Marty Madison. He’s a principled man, and thus a clear foil for Curtis Taylor Jr. The ordinarily ill-used Eddie Murphy, who consistently wastes himself in juvenile so-called humor, is exciting as Jimmie Early. His hair! His strut! He enters into the sensibility of the part and delivers a performance with just enough pathos to make for a compelling character.
Dreamgirls is a seriously flawed movie, but is still entertaining. Eddie Murphy and Jennifer Hudson deserve their professional props and industry recognitions. There are those who express shock that the movie has received no nomination for a Best Picture Academy Award; I would have been shocked if it had.