When The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin was released in 1981, I hadn’t been born, till a couple of years later. My love for TV and film (starting soon in the 90s) was cemented by my family’s video library business. The Owoko’s Library was enormous and rich in content. As a little girl, I would marvel at the hundreds of videotapes lined in cabinets in genres and alphabetical order. We had all the Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jean-Claude Van Damme action-packed films, with male packs that left me knowing that bonafide movie stars had to be box-shaped.
Our library also had musicals like Thriller, Sound of Music and Kidd Video. I adored cliché rom coms like Pretty Woman. Back then it was all about Hollywood, Bollywood and Boyz N The Hood. Must be the reason why I don’t remember much of African movies our library stocked, apart from those that had African themes like Coming to America and Cry Freedom.
But I do recall watching The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin, a film that detailed the atrocities of Uganda’s former dictator, Idi Amin Dada (during his rise to power in 1971 until his overthrow in 1979 as the result of the Uganda-Tanzania War). It was the first film that left me curious and hungry for more of African films or films with Africans with characters I could relate to. It was also the first film to freak me out most, but I still couldn’t stop re-watching it. It had an arresting power and shocking factor that, to my oblivious young-self, displayed an African appetite for voracity, power and impunity. The film’s display of Idi Amin’s dirty administration and inhumane acts was appalling. Its themes tapped into my inner most soft spot at an early age. The scene where Amin’s guards throw a crippled man in a river of crocodiles haunted me. I cringed at the sight of Amin eating people’s body parts. I was scared shitless for his girlfriends, as I knew they didn’t have a choice, but love him how he demanded or die.
A beautiful thing about childhood is the innocence that comes with thought; it’s like the first light of day, sharp and clear. I recall not understanding the consciousness of art, if at all there’s such a thing. From the very start I always invested all my feelings in the development of any story I read, song I heard or film I watched. For a long time, it baffled me what sort of career acting was. At first I thought I knew that all actors were just enacting roles. But Joseph Olita’s role as Idi Amin Dada is what made my conscience have to balance on a thin line, wondering if film was reality or fiction. Because Olita was so bad that he made my heart thump for a scared nation, and he looked exactly like Idi Amin, for some reason I first thought, without a doubt, that somehow he was the real Idi Amin. But then I started asking myself a million questions like: If Amin was that bad, why would he agree to document his actions for a film? What kind of crew would want to work with such a person? And then I deliberated that it couldn’t have been the real Amin in the film – but to act out like Amin, I decided that Olita had to sign up to be completely like Amin. But what would happen when he’d have to die? Would he die for real? This was the first time as a child I honestly thought that being the greatest actor in the world had everything to do with getting into character, even dying if you had to. I believed that movie stars were paid so much money then that it was a worthy sacrifice to always be watched in films and leave a lot of money to your family—wealth and legacy. As a young film buff, I believed that real movie stars were martyrs to large extents.
I kept on re-watching the film wondering how on earth such atrocities could have happened, and especially in Uganda, a country so close to Kenya. Of course, personal myths were shattered later after asking my sisters, Dad and mum questions about the realness of Olita’s character. That’s the first time I remember bowing down at an actor’s prowess and intuitively knowing that they were just great, with or without direction. This realisation made me watch the film even more and read a lot about the real Idi Amin. I was amazed at the striking resemblance between Amin and Olita; from looks, to earth-shaking personality and that assaulting roar of a laugh. As soon as I had this understanding, and that of Olita’s art, I remember fearing for Olita’s life. How did the real Idi Amin react to the film and would he come after Olita? Olita must be very brave man, I thought.
I met Olita in real life once, at our local shopping centre (Nairobi), about two years ago. As soon as I saw him, I saw Idi Amin and then I remembered, “It’s that man who played Idi Amin!” Keen not to embarrass myself I walked up to him and explained how vital his film was to my memory of African films. He was very graceful and seemed impressed to still command fans. He agreed for us to take a photo, which unfortunately I can’t trace. When I heard that Joseph Olita has passed on, a part of me departed. I must have stopped clutching onto the early memory of Olita as Idi Amin and allowed him to be human. What I can’t forget is Olita’s brilliance as an actor and ability to immerse into characterisation. He was the first African actor I identified as great.
He rose as Idi Amin and now Olita falls to grace.
BONUS: The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin was a co-production of the UK, Kenya and Nigeria, with most of the filming done in Kenya. Olita also featured in the film: Mississippi Masala as Idi Amin. Masala is a 1991 film starring Denzel Washington.