By Steve Biko Abuya and Japheth Ogila
Published June 5, 2014
Kenya’s talented actor Joseph Olita who played the role of Ugandan military strongman Idi Amin in the 1981 film, THE RISE AND FALL OF IDI AMIN, has on June 2, 2014 taken his last breath in Pap Oriang’ village where he was born some 70 years ago.
Olita, a hulking figure who stood 6 foot 6 and weighed close to 160 Kilogrammes at his prime, had an uncanny resemblance with General Idi Amin who overthrew President Milton Obote in 1971 and ruled the country with an iron fist till he was overthrown by Ugandan exiles led by Tanzanian troops in 1979.
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The nine-year regime provided the fodder from which THE RISE AND FALL OF IDI AMIN, a 101-minute drama directed by Sharad Patel of Film Corporation of Kenya and starring Olita who outdid himself as Amin.
The The late Joseph Olita’s humourous nature as an actor—depicted in his Luo accent-laden English—coupled with the ability to imitate Amin’s invention and adoption of fancy titles he liked but didn’t really understand are some of the attributes film lovers shall miss. But as they mourn and celebrate their icon, the fans are also asking themselves why so many screen awards and the cash that comes with them eluded him.
However, it wouldn’t be entirely true to assume that the debate has just begun after the death of Olita who was in March 2014 quoted by standardmedia.co.ke as having blamed his inability to win an Academy Award for his role in THE RISE AND FALL OF IDI AMIN to discrimination from ‘wazungu’ (white people in Kiswahili) while giving the coveted statuette to American Forest Whitaker for the Idi Amin role he played in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND.
“You see these wazungu are so selfish. They just wanted to make one of their own a star. Whitaker’s performance and role in The Last King of Scotland is nowhere close to what I did and still able to do,” the paper quoted Olita as having said in an article titled ‘Kenyans Who Could Have Won Oscars but Didn’t’ and written by John Lawrence. The article generated a lively debate on social media platforms:
Solomon Mwendwa (Filmmaker): Olita, for me, outdid Idi Amin. It is quite unfortunate that Whitaker whose performance was way below average gets an Oscar for the same role.
Ogova Ondego (Creative entrepreneur): Joseph Olita was in the right place at the wrong time. Let’s not forget the ever shifting politics of gate-keeping: affirmative action, political correctness, powerful USA/UK interests, etc.
Solomon Mwendwa: Maybe fate was never on his side…I think the Oscars were never meant for us; I see so much talent, so much potential…but I believe Hollywood will always rewards its own… I think Africa should focus on building its own strong platform to at least reward our very own Joseph Olitas.
As part of our effort to pay tribute to the fallen actor, we followed up on this discussion with Ondego who is also a film critic.
Ondego reiterates that Joseph Olita lived ahead of his time.
“This context [of living ahead of his time] could help explain why newcomers have ended up winning awards like Oscars, Golden Globes and SAGA but Olita hasn’t. While Charlize Theron became the first South African to win an Academy Award for her role in MONSTER (2003) and American Forest Steven Whitaker sauntered away with an Oscar for playing Idi Amin Dada in THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND (2006), Kenyan Lupita Nyong’o’s role in 12 YEARS A SLAVE earned her an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Yes, Theron, Whitaker and Nyong’o were at the right place at the right time.”
Could this explain why Whitaker, though playing the same role that Olita had played 26 years earlier, ends up with a chain of awards but Olita exits empty-handed?
But Ondego hastens to add that his observation should not be taken to mean Theron, Whitaker or Nyong’o shouldn’t be feted.
“Let’s always remember that it isn’t always the fastest runner who wins the race or the strongest warrior who always wins the battle,” Ondego says, quoting Ecclesiates 9:11. “The wise sometimes go hungry, and the skillful are not necessarily wealthy. And those who are educated don’t always lead successful lives. It is all decided by chance, by being in the right place at the right time.”
Whereas THE RISE AND FALL OF IDI AMIN in which Olita starred was directed and produced by Sharad Patel—a Kenyan of Indian origin under Film Corporation of Kenya—THE LAST KING OF SCOTLAND, like 12 YEARS A SLAVE, is a production of UK and US companies while Nyong’o is a graduate of US schools—Hampshire College with a bachelor’s degree in Film and Theatre Studies and a master’s degree in Acting from Yale School of Drama—who worked as a production assistant on several Hollywood films before landing a role in Steve McQueen’s 12 YEARS A SLAVE from which she won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Born in Alego area in western Kenya around 1944, Olita attended St Mary’s School Yala where he is said to have been an active member of the drama club.
The downfall of Idi Amin in Uganda in 1979 opened the door to screen acting for Olita. Olita portrays Amin as a comedian, tyrant and buffoon who misuses his authority and power to acquire whatever he fancies, to bully, execute, dispossess and deport people from Uganda at his own pleasure.
Olita went on to appear in SHEENA: QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE, a 117-minute drama shot in Kenya about an orphaned girl with supernatural powers trying to wipe out bad leadership in a fictional country and in MISSISSIPPI MASALA, a romantic drama about interracial relationship between an African American man and an Indian woman whose family has sought refuge in the US after having been stripped of their citizenship in Idi Amin’s Uganda.
Playing the role of Bishop Elijah of the African Israel Divine Charismatic Evangelistic Church of the Second Coming in the 2011 romantic comedy film, THE CAPTAIN OF NAKARA, Olita cuts the image of a conservative cleric who adheres strictly to religious norms. This appears to have been his last appearance on screen.