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Review: The Last King of Scotland


By Steven Barnes


Talk about a movie elevated by a single performance. 


Remove the phenomenal work of Forest Whitaker as Field Marshall Idi Amin Dada, this film about a Scottish doctor’s unlikely friendship with the Ugandan dictator would be rather predictable: White man goes to an African country, immediately enters the highest realms of power, sleeps with beautiful African women, is ultimately repelled by the savages, etc.

But Whitaker’s performance, which is alternately funny, terrifying, heart-felt, warm and and fiendishly charismatic, makes The Last King of Scotland one of the finest film portrayals I have ever seen in my life. 


No other performance in the film is even vaguely on the same level, and I’ve seen no other this year anywhere to eclipse it.  Stunning.

The entire venture would have been a disaster and earned an “alert” banner if, for instance, they had cast Micheal Clark Duncan as the dictator. 


It is impossible to avoid an examination of the origins of this particular monster, who was beloved by his people even as he slaughtered them.  To this day, Ugandans seem divided in how they view him (according to film crew who shot there over a period of months.)

But “Last King” touches on the legacy of Colonialism.  When national boundaries are sliced through ethnic homelands and outsiders hand out power to local leaders who may have been at war for generations, it is easily understandable how things can go very, very wrong when said Colonial power leaves. 




Ethnic fighting becomes horrific.  There are fascinating social anthropology studies on the patterns of violence following such actions, and they are grimly familiar.

Amin was the product of such action, and I remember hearing nothing—and I mean nothing—positive about him back in the day.  I heard far more positive things about Hitler, believe me.  And the fact that a film with Amin at the center is far more likely to be made than one about, say, Mandela, is heart-breaking.

But the fact is that I at the core of this movie remains a classic, impeccable performance by an artist who has yet to receive his full due.  “King” has Oscar all over it—for both positive and negative reasons.  It reinforces all of the most negative stereotypes of Africa.


But it also touches truth about the resulting chaos when differential social and technological development collide.  And Amin’s tortured psyche is a perfectly logical place to experience this collision. 

Did this story have to be told through the eyes of a Scot?  Well, if you want the movie to be seen outside of tiny art houses and DVD rental stores, yeah, probably. Remember that little problem some folks may have with Black people telling their own stories in their own ways?

But there were real horror in Idi Amin’s Uganda.  And “Last King” captures it in a manner oddly in balance with “Hotel Rwanda.”  Incredible film.  An “A.”


The Last King of Scotland also stars Kerry Washington, Simon McBurney and Gillian Anderson and is in now in cinema. Rated R for strong violence, gruesome images, sexual content and language.


Steven Barnes is a novelist, television writer and art critics. He blogs as Darkush.


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