There’s nothing Minnesota Nice about Idi Amin’s rise to power in 20th-century Uganda. That didn’t stop Twin Cities Public Television from bringing his story to a national audience. “The Dictator’s Playbook,” a six-part series debuting Wednesday with an episode on North Korea’s Kim Il Sung, is the latest big-tent project from the St. Paul-based outlet that played a critical role in bringing “Hoop Dreams” and “Slavery by Another Name” to the screen.
Like those earlier projects, none of “Playbook” was shot in Minnesota. No local professors were tapped for their expertise. Saddam Hussein didn’t spend a summer working the grill at Murray’s steakhouse.
Michael Rosenfeld, vice president of TPT’s national productions, said his projects aren’t limited to subjects with local connections.
“This is very much in the tradition of what TPT has done in the past, which is deep, thoughtful explorations of our history,” said Rosenfeld, who works primarily out of Washington, D.C. (where it’s easier to lobby the PBS power brokers). “I like to think we tackle subjects that help us understand how we got to where we are now.”
Rosenfeld said he originally pitched a film two years ago that focused squarely on Josef Stalin. PBS was interested — but only if his team expanded the idea into a series.
“It’s easier to promote stuff these days that are on a fairly large scale,” he said.
Rosenfeld, who joined TPT in 2016, struck a deal and eventually secured key partners, including Cream Productions, a Toronto-based company that handled the filming, and the National Geographic Channel, which has aired the series on its European stations.
In addition to getting the ball rolling, TPT played several roles throughout filming, from helping to secure funds to supervising the final edit. Rosenfeld also had a seat at the table when it came to choosing the six men to profile. Kim and Spain’s Francisco Franco made the cut; Adolf Hitler did not.
“We had some debate on that, but he fell out pretty early,” Rosenfeld said. “So much has been done on Hitler, and we just didn’t know we could do his story justice in an hour. We wanted to choose dictators who were sort of well known to audiences so at least they knew their names, but we still had the opportunity to tell a deeper story and maybe surprise people a little bit.”
“Playbook” works best when it humanizes figures largely remembered for inhumane acts. The episode on Manuel Noriega presents a young man cursed by poverty and bad skin whose dreams of going to medical school were dashed by Panama’s elites-only system. Footage of Amin charming his fellow Ugandans by joking and dancing are contrasted with tales of perverse torture directed at anybody who didn’t march to his beat.
Even experts on the subject of 20th-century dictators found nuggets that surprised them. Natasha Ezrow, author of “Dictators and Dictatorships,” learned only from watching the series how Benito Mussolini worked with the Italian Parliament in legal ways early in his rise.
“Instead of trying to do too many different things, the series really focuses on what led these people to power and what kept them in power,” said Ezrow, who teaches at the University of Essex and was used as a talking head throughout the six episodes. “They did a really good job of capturing that. I can’t believe how much they were able to put into the series.”