The Last King of Scotland stars Forest Whitaker as General Idi Amin, the brutal dictator of Uganda, and James McAvoy as Dr. Nicholas Garrigan, Amin’s personal assistant and advisor. The movie details Nicholas’ relationship, advice to, and fear of General Idi Amin. Although it has factual inconsistencies, unnecessary plot devices, and is yet another example of having to cinematically explore other cultures through the gaze of a white male, the film is quite thought provoking. Personified by great acting, questions of good and evil and ethics and morality are brought into sharp discussion.
The most intriguing aspect of The Last King of Scotland is that unlike many movies that offer simple heroes and villains, this film forces the audience to take a deep and questioning look into our assumptions of good and evil. First, we have the character of Nicholas, a young doctor, setting out to do a life of good by going to Uganda to help the poor and needy with his medical knowledge. Yet, Nicholas is soon dissuaded from his path of good intentions to become the personal physician of Amin and transported to a life of luxury far beyond his expectations. Throughout the movie, Nicholas makes sexual choices that many would deem immoral; however, the presentation of his morality is ultimately ambiguous as he makes decisions that both help and hurt others.
Questions of how or why great atrocities happen are of great interest and much importance with a significant amount of responses simply locating their sources in “evil people.” However, we would do well to remember that the worst atrocities happen not only when evil speaks but when good is silent. The character of Nicholas is a perfect example of how someone seeking to do good in the world can also aid, abet, and even become evil when tempted by luxury, denial, friendship and even misguided altruism.
Further, Whitaker’s performance of Idi Amin is brilliant because it portrays a full man. Although Amin’s policies and massacres are evil, we are able to see a scared and even humorous side to this brutal dictator. Whitaker’s Oscar-winning performance enables the audience to not necessarily sympathize with the man but to come to the conclusion that evil is human. Unfortunately, a great and comforting misconception about evil insists that it lurks outside of normal human beings, belonging only to an outsider and never to ourselves. Thus the power of The Last King of Scotland lies in its unmasking of this misconception: it shows through both Nicholas and Amin two ways in which evil is very real, both passively and actively, but always human.