Look at you. Is there one thing you have done that is good?
–Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker)
Nicholas (James McAvoy) wants to leave home. He thinks he deserves better than the rut of a life he sees laid out before him, now that he’s earned his medical degree. At the start of The Last King of Scotland, Nicholas is at dinner with his very proper doctor dad, who’s pronouncing the son’s future as an associate in his practice. The furniture is polished, the tablecloth is white, and even Nicholas’ mother is looking a little put out by dad’s dullness.
Cut to the young Scot’s adventure in Africa. Nicholas is on his way to a post in a Ugandan village, where the roads are dirt and facilities are rudimentary. He meets a pretty girl on the bus, spends an evening of close-ups and heavy breathing in her bed, then charges off to his appointment, late. At this point, it’s clear that Nicholas is used to getting what he wants, and so he doesn’t care much that, as the dedicated Dr. Merrit (Adam Kotz) informs him, “80% of the locals still prefer the witch doctor to us.” Bored, Nicholas directs his attention to Merrit’s lonely wife Sarah (Gillian Anderson), who watches him carefully, in turn. Their flirtation, increasingly meaningful for her even as he loses interest, tells you little about Nicholas that you don’t already know: he’s a minor cad, brash and maybe too conscious of his own charms. The first few scenes set up the boy’s carelessness, which is less pathological than predictable for young white men of a certain station in the 1970s.
But even as Nicholas seems to know himself, he can’t begin to be prepared for the whirlwind he meets in Uganda, the charismatic and utterly frightening Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker). Their first encounter initiates a bizarre process of mutual mythification. Amin admires the young doctor’s background and seeming gumption (the kid grabs the president’s gun to shoot a loudly bellowing, dying cow within minutes of their meeting, and quite miraculously, is not shot dead himself by the battery of bodyguards), while Nicholas imagines the dictator’s invitation to become his personal physician will grant him excitement, access, and a chance to “do good” with all new resources at the hospital in Kampala. The two men look in one another’s eyes and see what they need to see.
At first, Kevin Macdonald’s film is smart about this reciprocal seduction. Based on Giles Foden’s novel, adapted by Jeremy Brock and Peter Morgan, it reveals in subtle compositions the extent of Amin and Nicholas’ deceptions and desires, indicated in their exchanged glances and frames full of movement and color. given that Macdonald made the brilliant documentary One Day in September, it’s tempting to believe this film has a sense of proportion and detail: there’s lots of blame to go around in this story.
The redheaded doctor fancies himself Amin’s equal, encouraged by the leader’s “appreciation” that he “speaks his mind,” unlike the usual lackeys (all black Africans, not incidentally). When Nicholas sees that he’s replaced a perfectly decent and hardworking black doctor (Djonju [David Oyelowo]), he doesn’t pry into reasons, but skates along. Believing himself above the moral fray because he only lets others (namely, Amin) be cruel or irrational, Nicholas pretends he’s not responsible. He goes so far as to see his own errors in judgment as worthy. When his sympathy for Amin’s wife Kay (Kerry Washington), currently on the outside because her son is epileptic eventually leads to romance, Nicholas acts as if he’s doing a right thing by her, that he might be remotely able to protect her.
When, at a celebration, Amin asserts, “Here is where civilization began, here in Africa, where Romans stole their philosophy and the Italians took their medicine,” Nicholas nods and applauds with everyone else, even as he takes advantage of the current population’s lack of education and Amin’s brutal means of maintaining “order.” Amin gives him a shiny BMW, and the kid assumes it as his due; it’s extravagant, but maybe it makes up for the demanding nature of his job, as Amin calls him at all hours, installs him as a “personal advisor,” sending him to “make” foregone political deals as if he has real insight or experience.
As Amin becomes visibly (or more consistently) psychotic and paranoid, Nicholas finally gets a clue, fearing for his own safety. By that time, he’s witnessed or heard about enough contemptible violence and depraved machinations to guess what might happen to him if Amin turns on him, but as long as that turn seemed unlikely, he ignored it. And so Nicholas becomes the obvious embodiment of whiteness, a clumsy, arrogant, unthinking plunderer who presumes his privilege is natural, if not by dint of his race, then maybe just because he, as an individual, is just that intelligent, so he deserves what he gets.
Nicholas’ seeming counterpart in this mess of motives and results is the conniving British diplomat Stone (Simon McBurney). Though both are culpable for the expansion of Amin’s power, neither can admit it. Informed that something he did led directly to a murder, Nicholas rejects the blame but indicts his environment as if it explains Amin: “This is Africa,” he says, palely, “You meet violence with violence.”
For his part, Amin observes that Nicholas “knew”: “You have stepped deep into the heart of my country,” he whispers while incarnating the nation. “Uganda loves you.” This is what Nicholas cannot get, for it would mean a self-knowledge and humility beyond his capacity. In his mind, he turns Amin’s consuming embrace around, believing him to be insane and evil, rather than acknowledging his part in the so-called monster’s birth and gargantuan life.
As a metaphor, the fictional Nicholas makes clear the insidious means by which the West, and in particular, the Caucasian West, exploits and abuses its privilege. The complications for this metaphor are multiple, and some are well rehearsed. While The Last King of Scotland makes Nicholas pay dearly and repeatedly for his vanity and willful ignorance, it also encourages your investment in his plight. On the surface, he’s another white guy caught up in what seems a black African tragedy (this even as his experience shows as well a much broader culpability, by multiple nations and agents, over a long time). At the same time, the film makes abundantly clear that Amin is a scary individual, perhaps produced by sundry forces, but fearsome in himself. As brilliant as Whitaker’s performance is, Amin is the manifest offender, living beyond your sympathy. That Nicholas — however inadvertently, however much he seems a victim — is also capable of great horrors, specifically in that he lets others act it for him and gets away with it (emotionally, morally, politically, if not physically), makes him, at some deep level, even more troubling than Amin.