You wouldn't expect to see a fart gag in a film chronicling one of the most murderous despots in world history, former Ugandan president Idi Amin Dada. You also wouldn't expect said film, The Last King of Scotland, to contain the most powerful, riveting performance you'll see on a big screen this year. Yet both are true, and embodied within the giant frame of Forest Whitaker.
Now clearly, in stature alone both physical and celebrity Hollywood isn't overflowing with black actors who could take on a character as large as the legendary African dictator. Delroy Lindo? Can't see it. Michael Clarke Duncan? Not a convincing villain, as the two of you who saw Daredevil may recall. Whitaker may be the only man for this assignment, but he doesn't take the challenge for granted. He commands with a portrayal that's deft in the shadings of Amin's wild mood swings from playful charmer to vicious intimidator. During his reign throughout the 1970s, Amin was a man corrupted by absolute power and his paranoia ran amok: He killed an estimated 300,000 Ugandans he viewed as enemies of the state.
The thing about being a madman is, you don't just run around raving all the time, and Whitaker plumbs the layers of Amin's personality to perfection. The film's only disappointment: its constant and unsettling undertones about black perceptions of white superiority, culminating in the appalling crucifixion image of the heroic Caucasian healer suspended in midair above his dark, savage tormentors.
Based on the fact-filled novel by Giles Foden, The Last King of Scotland (a title Amin bestowed on himself before Great Britain broke off diplomatic ties with his regime) follows fictional Scottish med school graduate Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy of The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) who, to distance himself from an overbearing father, spins a globe and points at random to decide where he should begin his practice. (Initially landing on Canada, he quickly decides to spin again, particularly cheeky since this film premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival.)
Spin No. 2 two brings him to Uganda just as Amin is seizing command, though Garrigan is at first more concerned with seizing his mentor's sultry wife, played by Grand Rapids' own Gillian Anderson (where's she been?). As Garrigan is leaving a village, Amin is injured nearby in an auto accident and his officers nab the doctor to give treatment. The dictator takes an unexpected liking to the boyish physician, and makes him an offer or rather, an edict: Leave the bush and come to the palace as his personal physician.
McAvoy is brilliant as Garrigan, a believable, ebullient man-child who turns a blind eye to Amin's rule of terror as he revels in all the pleasures that a seat beside the throne can bring, and accepts the emotional buffeting that occurs as his status shifts from Amin's "most trusted adviser" to "his white monkey" and back again.
But it is Whitaker who walks away with it all in this graphic, brutal tragedy. It's hard enough for a brother to get nominated for an Oscar, much less win one (see: Washington, Denzel). But if any performance this year is worth considering, here it is. This is pristine Forest.
The Last King of Scotland is re-released and showing at the Birmingham 8 (211 S. Old Woodward Ave., Birmingham; 248-644-3456).
Jim McFarlin writes about movies for Metro Times.. Send comments to [email protected].