Laugh, weep or run: Idi Amin on the silver screen

April 13, 2007

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KAMPALA, UGANDA – Evil is never easy to look in the eye. So it’s no surprise that The Last King of Scotland is getting mixed reactions in this corner of the world, where the story, both its real and Hollywood version, unfolds.

The film which won an Oscar for Forest Whitaker’s powerful performance as Idi Amin Dada, the megalomaniac who ruled Uganda with an iron fist in the 1970s, recently opened here in Kampala. It’s been quite a splash.

Keep in mind that Uganda, a country of 25 million, has just two small Cineplexes. But Whitaker showed up for the premier gala, as did director Kevin Macdonald. The red carpets came out, and President Yoweri Museveni and his wife joined the entourage.

The movie, after all, was shot in Uganda, a place that has as much film infrastructure as a frozen waffle. Hollywood never comes here. If producers even reach Africa, which they are lately, (Hotel Rwanda, Shooting Dogs, The Constant Gardener, Blood Diamond), they’ll shoot in South Africa or Kenya.

Still, Ugandans can take a bow for their proverbial 15 minutes of fame. Several cast were Ugandan. More so, the film showed plenty of local sites just minutes from your theatre seat.

Which is where the pain comes in. Because when you see that familiar Kampala landmark, you connect the dots that much easier to that distant loved one that maybe died in Amin’s horrible era, when 300,000 Ugandans were killed or simply “disappeared.”

Yes, Amin was a monster. So one criticism from some Ugandans is that the often charming, even comical, man portrayed by Whitaker was not real. “Amin was not funny,” is how one viewer put it. Then again, evil rarely runs around with a pitchfork and horns.

At the other extreme, some have literally laughed, as if watching a comedy. A newspaper headline noted “Amin taught us to laugh at tragedy.” Strange thing. Even here at the Ugandan Christian university where I live, during a recent Sunday message, when challenged to live pure lives and avoid consequences like AIDS, plenty of students laughed.

It’s one way to push one’s pain to a deep and comfortable place of denial. Of course anyone can build that kind of unreal world, such castles in the sky. The problem comes when we try to live in them.

I wonder if that same inability to face evil is what some Christians struggle with when a disturbing movie like this comes along. One North American Christian film website calls it “extremely morally offensive,” and a reviewer warns “My advice is to stay far away.”

Sure the movie was offensive. The real Amin, after all, would kill folks personally with a sledgehammer. Then there’s the obligatory Hollywood sex. During this, President’s Musevni’s wife, an outspoken Christian, even covered her eyes.

Then again, the whores and thieves that hung around Jesus weren’t really the epitome of clean living. And wouldn’t the lives of several Old Testament greats be Rated R too?

Isn’t this, seeing evil and its consequences, the exact point of it all? Isn’t this why these biblical stories are left for us?

Evil, by nature, will always be offensive. Christians, by nature, are meant to expose it.

We may have to cover our eyes in the process, but Christians are never called to pretend we don’t live in the fallen and broken world that we do.

In this sense, The Last King of Scotland is a fine character study and an honest look at how darkness can settle in any human heart. It’s also a reminder of one of the great truths that Jesus taught: life is hard.

Even by African standards, Ugandans know this well. After Amin’s bloody reign of terror, another 400,000 Ugandans died in civil war. Soon after, AIDS arrived. The ensuing road to recovery still hasn’t been easy.

Some might feel a need to laugh at that all. Others might run screaming in the opposite direction. But as we engage our culture and the broader world, we as thinking believers are called to something better.

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April 13, 2007 • Posted in ,
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