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Forest Whitaker Tried to Humanize Tyrant Amin

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Soon, human skulls are discovered beneath mounds of dirt.

This Role Was Brutal
Forest Whitaker Tried to Humanize Tyrant Amin

By Wil Haygood
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 1, 2006; N01


They always start as saviors, their skin shining in the African sunlight, their smiles wide as the Nile itself. The promises are bountiful. They will grow more beans and rice. They will build better housing. The naked children will be clothed.

The people, so tired of hurt and need, want desperately to believe. They gape in awe at the figure before them, dressed in a leisure suit, or a military uniform adorned with questionable medals, and hope that he will deliver.

But soon it comes: The fears that onetime allies are plotting against the state. That cabinet ministers cannot be trusted. There is paranoid whispering. Old cronies are jailed. Then there are disappearances. Soon, human skulls are discovered beneath mounds of dirt.

Among the men who conspired and deviled their way to the high-back chair of the post-colonial African leader, few were as strange, bizarre, hypnotic, wicked, heartbreaking and quotable as Idi Amin Dada, better known simply as Idi Amin, who ruled Uganda from 1971 to 1979. Before being run out of office, he was responsible for more than 300,000 deaths, inspiring tales of egomania, debauchery and even cannibalism.

"Consummate evil," agrees Forest Whitaker, who plays Amin in "The Last King of Scotland," a biopic that opens in Washington on Wednesday. Based on a 1998 novel by Giles Foden, it follows a fictional Scottish doctor who treats Amin's real and imagined ailments and witnesses the horrors that engulf Uganda, soon finding his own life in peril.

Whitaker, however, says he wanted to find nuance in the evil that was unleashed. "He's not Satan," he says of Amin. "He's not the devil. My search was to find the reasons he made the decisions that he did."

The 44-year-old actor is staring out a hotel room window. He swivels his head back around. A thought comes to him about a distinct Amin characteristic, which is partly why he says he could play the tyrant. "The 'definitiveness' of him," says Whitaker. "If someone said to him, 'I wanna go home,' he could say, 'You cannot.' "

Boom. Just like that.

Plenty of open fields over there for those who wanted to go home and didn't make it.

The actor is beefy, though not as hulking, as huge, as Amin. He's settled into an East Side hotel room sofa, wearing jeans, black suit coat and a gray shirt. Like a slew of accomplished character actors -- Wallace Beery, James Earl Jones, Ned Beatty -- Forest Whitaker could be your mailman, your car repairman, your electrician.

He burrowed into books and articles about African colonial history before trekking to Uganda to play Amin. He wanted to understand the ground from which Amin sprang. It was a Uganda ruled by the British during colonialism, and given up by the British without a physical fight when independence came. "I wonder if we can look at Africa without the context of intervention," Whitaker says. "There is a schism in African history, and Amin was a big product of it. He was rewarded by the British for fighting against the Mau Mau. He was sent to Sandhurst. He was put into power by the British."

Sandhurst is the revered military academy where the British have long sent their best men, including members of the royal family.

"The British," Whitaker goes on, "thought Amin was a great soldier."

Amin served under Ugandan President Apollo Milton Obote. When he put down a few tribal clashes, Obote promoted him. "In the U.S., we have forms of tribalism," says Whitaker. "Just look at the red block of the country. In Africa, though, it becomes more complex. It becomes: 'How do you keep all these people listening to you?' "

When Amin seized power in 1971, there were rallies, young men piled onto trucks with honking horns, dust flying in the road. Children singing.

And in Amin himself, there was such buoyancy, that way he could dance with the people, shimmy in his Army fatigues, joke with ambassadors. He'd swim in races -- and cheat, leaving the pool's edge before the whistle blew. Ha-ha-ha. No one dared complain and the people laughed.

In time the darkness would come, the evil doings, many following attempts on Amin's life. Obote followers would be condemned without trials.

When he landed in Uganda, Whitaker was determined to meet members of Amin's family. They live in Arua, in the northwestern part of the country. "The studio didn't want me to go up there," Whitaker says. "But I felt I had to."

He flew there with an assistant. He found the small home of Amin's brother, Amule. Amin was one of eight children, four brothers and four sisters, and Amule, in his late fifties, is the sole surviving brother.

"He didn't want to talk to me. He was nervous. He kept asking me questions. Finally I said: 'I have a letter here, a Xerox. It's permission from the government for people to be allowed to help me.' He then said, 'Why didn't you show me this in the beginning? This is very important to show me!' "

In Africa, letters with official governmental seals can carry an almost mystical weightiness.

Whitaker goes on: "He wanted me to portray his brother fairly. I said, 'I wouldn't be here if I didn't intend to.' He took me outside. And there we were, sitting under a mango tree. It was like a scene out of a movie. Little kids would come by and kiss your hand. That's their way of greeting you, of wishing you good day. I understood, in a little tiny room in my head, what's it like to be African."

The question of a fair portrayal might seem strange, Whitaker acknowledges. Three hundred thousand Ugandans were killed during Amin's reign.

Whitaker wants to paint a fuller portrait. "He ran the African Union" for a while, Whitaker says. "He was friends with Golda Meir." But the label of Butcher of Africa persists.

"Look at Pol Pot," says Whitaker, speaking of the Cambodian tyrant responsible for at least a million deaths. "Take scalping. It was brought in by the British. Look at the Crusades -- sticking stakes in people!"

He seems to be saying there were worse, that leaders are never completely clean.

In old footage, Amin can be seen dressed smartly in an all-white military uniform. He can be seen wearing Scottish kilts and a tam-o'-shanter. He was wild about Scotland and laughingly proclaimed himself the last King of Scotland. He can be seen towering over dignitaries, his face glowing.

Amin had been a championship boxer early in his military career. As president, he lavished money and gifts upon the country's boxers. "Fighters would come back from Olympic trials when he was in office and say, 'They cheated,' " says Whitaker. "And Amin would say: 'To win, just knock them out. Then there will not be any questions. Just knock them out.' "

In 1972, Amin began expelling Asians, many of whom were part of the country's business class. The international community was appalled. The Ugandan economy worsened, as did Amin's paranoia. Cabinet ministers fled into exile. His soldiers jailed and beat foreign journalists.

At night, the killings were done.

In some of the old footage, the unearthed skulls look like gaunt snowballs.

Uganda's current president, Yoweri Museveni, himself a onetime guerrilla fighter, came to power with much fanfare in 1986, after a brief return to power by Obote. Museveni has been given mostly good marks by the international community, particularly on health issues. But his army has waged a long war with the Lord's Resistance Army, a motley band of rebels led by Joseph Kony, who is known to have many child brides and is said to believe in witchcraft and spirits. A fragile peace has recently been reached.

"But now," notes Whitaker, "even Museveni wants to stay in power. Does he need to stay? It's complicated. If so, how long does he stay? Amin being in power was not about power. It was about losing power."

Playing Ruthless

The movie's producers, in the early years of the project, had imagined Whitaker in the lead. But when Kevin Macdonald -- who won an Oscar for his 1999 documentary, "One Day in September," on the hostage crisis in Munich at the 1972 Olympics -- came aboard, he disagreed. He respected Whitaker's work but just could not imagine him playing Idi Amin Dada.

"I didn't think Forest was right," Macdonald says. "So I looked in Britain. I looked in Africa. I couldn't find anybody who had the acting chops for this kind of role. Then I came to America to meet a bunch of different people. I met Forest. He's a gentle guy. Thoughtful. I just had never seen him do that explosive, front-foot type of acting."

The gentle actor wanted to play ruthless. So Macdonald listened to Whitaker's take on Amin. "Forest spoke about Amin so interestingly. There was something almost creepy about how he understood Amin," recalls Macdonald. "Then he said to me: 'You don't think I can do this, do you?' He said: 'I'm going to read a scene for you.' He does the scene where Amin turns on Garrigan [the Scottish doctor] for the first time. He was explosive. Really scary. You wanted to step back a bit."

Whitaker was born with a condition known as strabismus. It resembles "lazy eye." On screen he makes it look nearly poetic.

After high school, he bounced around a couple of California colleges, trying to decide between opera singing and acting. At the age of 19 he found himself singing in a performance of "The Beggar's Opera" in Los Angeles. He came away from the performance with an agent.

He got a small role in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High."

He did a wrestling movie, "Vision Quest," in 1985 that starred Matthew Modine.

Whitaker auditioned for a Martin Scorsese movie, "The Color of Money." The part went to another actor. When filming began in Chicago, Scorsese was disappointed that the actor hired to play a small role as a pool player couldn't shoot skillfully enough.

"They called me back and asked me if I could play pool," says Whitaker.

He lied. He wanted the role.

"They asked me if I would fly my way to Chicago."

Of course he would. He bought a pool cue. He practiced for 12 hours a day, seven days a week, for two weeks. "You just flip your mind," he says. "Tell yourself you can do something and all of a sudden you can do it. I flew to Chicago. Went to the hotel and told them to take my bags up. I didn't even go up to my room. I had my stick. I said, 'Where's the nearest pool hall?' "

The movie was a sequel to "The Hustler," which starred Paul Newman in 1961 in the role of "Fast Eddie" Felson. Scorsese's 1986 version starred Newman once again and also Tom Cruise and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.

When the movie came out, critic Pauline Kael singled out Whitaker for praise. "That was important for me," Whitaker says. "She was this very important film critic. It's just one scene that I had, but it's pivotal to Newman's character."

He went on to a rash of notable performances: "Platoon," "The Crying Game," "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai," the Clint Eastwood-directed "Bird" and "Panic Room" among them. For "Bird," a biopic of jazzman Charlie Parker, he won the best actor award at the Cannes Film Festival.

He became a hybrid: actor-producer-director. He directed "Waiting to Exhale," based on the Terry McMillan novel, and "Hope Floats," which starred Sandra Bullock. He hosted a resurrected "Twilight Zone" on television. He's had a prominent role on "The Shield," the Michael Chiklis police drama.

He started a production company. But he recently closed it.

"We had a TV division, employees in London," he says. "It got to be too much. It's about managing people. Then selling the product. I was finally like, 'Look, this is not for me.' That's why I'm not directing now. I feel I've now become an artist again. An awakening is happening inside me. I don't know if that would have happened if I was struggling as a director with notes about a project."

An African Subplot

In "The Last King of Scotland," the white doctor, Nicholas Garrigan, is an aggressive player in his own downfall, even going so far as to have an affair with one of Amin's wives. (The Garrigan character is a composite of various whites who interacted with Amin during his presidency. One of Amin's wives -- he was reported to have married five times and fathered more than 40 children -- had an abortion to keep an affair hidden from the dictator. She was murdered. Many blamed Amin.)

Macdonald says, though, that he didn't want a movie that fictionalized the story to the point where the white character becomes a heroic figure. "It's unfortunately the economics of moviemaking," he says. "Getting whites into a movie with a leading black character."

A director wishing to film in an African country quickly realizes how important it is to gain an audience with the president, particularly if filming involves one of its most storied and tyrannical characters.

Macdonald and his film crew had an hours-long meeting in Kampala with Museveni and members of his cabinet. There was much discussion, and Macdonald could not easily decipher how it would turn out.

"Then he stood up and said we could film," Macdonald says of Museveni. "And he said we could use the army!"

Macdonald spoke to former members of Amin's regime. (Amin died in Saudi Arabia in 2003. He was believed to be 80.) Both he and Whitaker would meet people who revered Amin's historical place, his nationalism. "He is often not thought of the same way inside the country as he is outside the country," Macdonald says.

Macdonald says he wanted complexity and nuance. "For me this film is about colonial power, the Third World in general, and Uganda in specific. Garrigan is really a flawed white figure. He's selfish, grasping, greedy for experience for himself. I see it as a backpacking film: Middle-class white kids going to Africa who want to take something home and not realizing the consequences."

Macdonald thought a movie just showing the killings would be too one-dimensional. "Amin had streaks of brilliance, but in a mind riddled with paranoid guilt and anger," he says. "I think he was a public relations genius. I think if he were living today he'd be head of public relations for Miramax. He was once lifted on his throne wearing a kilt by four white businessmen. That picture was shown everywhere in the world. It's a conversion of the African stereotype. How Amin came to represent the worst imagining the West had. The savage king. And yet all these songs were written about him."

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There was buzz about Whitaker's performance on the late-summer festival circuit. He hunches his shoulders. "I just hope people see the work," he says.

He hasn't shaken Africa and Uganda.

Toward the end of his stay there, his Ugandan assistant and driver took him out in a small boat on the Nile. It was lovely, quiet. "We're out there in the middle, in a little boat," he says. "They pulled out a bag. Opened it. It was this African shirt. They said, 'We got this and we want to give it to you here.' It was quite special. To me, it was their way of saying, 'You are an African brother now.' "

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