One week into Black History Month, we're proud to salute Forest Whitaker, who's been making waves in the world and the entertainment business for nearly 4 decades.
How You Know Him
He won the Best Actor Academy Award for his terrifying, visceral performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 2006's "The Last King of Scotland." His portrayal was so powerful that he also won just about every other award, including BAFTA, Golden Globe, SAG, L.A. Film Critic Association, New York Film Critics Circle honors and more.
He's made indelible impressions as the lead in "Lee Daniels' The Butler" and Dr. James Farmer Sr. in "The Great Debaters." He's legendary for his portrayal of sax man Charlie "Bird" Parker in Clint Eastwood's "Bird." And cult classic fans know him as the mob hit man with a heart in Jim Jarmusch's "Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai."
He's also produced, through his Significant Productions imprint, such modern classics as the real-life drama "Fruitvale Station," the Inglewood-set dramedy "Dope" and director Boots Riley's off-the-wall sci-fi-social drama-comedy "Sorry to Bother You."
Their Life So Far
The son of a special education teacher (Laura Francis) and an insurance salesman (Forest E. Whitaker Jr.), Whitaker took to both singing and football while attending high school in Los Angeles. He attended Cal State Polytechnic University on a football scholarship, turned once more to music after an injury, and eventually transferred to and graduated from USC with a BFA in acting in 1982.
Whitaker's first onscreen role was the imposing football star Charles Jefferson in the Cameron Crowe-penned, Amy Heckerling directed hit "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" (also in 1982). From there, he spent a lot of the '80s mixing it up with big-time directors and projects, including Oliver Stone's "Platoon," Barry Levinson's "Good Morning, Vietnam" and Martin Scorsese's "The Color of Money."
The late '80s and '90s found Whitaker basking in critical accolades for "Bird" (1988), and projects like "The Crying Game" (where he played a captive British soldier) and Robert Altman's "Pret a Porter." He also appeared in plenty of fun genre fare like "Species" and "Body Snatchers."
Post millennium, the actor's kept busy with great roles in David Fincher's home invasion thriller "Panic Room," the Colin Farrell-Kiefer Sutherland nail-biter "Phone Booth," Denis Villeneuve's sci-fi "Arrival," his two major award-winning roles in "The Last King of Scotland" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler," and of course a part in the MCU's groundbreaking "Black Panther."
Even more impressive (and, he admits, owing much to how he saw his mother serve as a teacher), Whitaker has has pursued activism throughout his career. He was appointed by the Secretary-General of the United Nations as an advocate for Sustainable Development Goals. He was inducted as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador in 2011. And he co-founded the International Institute of Peace at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey.
Also, working his mind and his body, Whitaker earned a Black belt in Kenpo Karate.
The Movie to Watch
Oscar hawks will direct you to his outstanding performance in "The Last King of Scotland." But we're recommending his earlier, initial breakthrough role as jazz legend, saxophone player Charlie "Bird" Parker in Clint Eastwood's incredible biopic. Whitaker is able to play all of the notes of the man – from his unparalleled talent and beautiful music and musical performances, to Parker's tragic addictions. To prepare for the role, Whitaker buried himself deep in research, and even quarantined himself in a room with only a bed, couch, and saxophone. For his hard work, he won the Best Actor award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.
Music / 1988
Director Clint Eastwood, a noted jazz aficionado, directs this heartfelt study of pioneering bop saxophonist Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker). Moving forward and backward through Parker's brief life before his death of a heroin overdose at age 34, the film foregrounds the saxophonist's difficult relationship with his wife, Chan Parker (Diane Venora), but also features lengthy scenes of Parker improvising on stage, lit with the neon and cigarette smoke of vintage jazz clubs.
What's Up Next
Look for the legend next playing legendary singer-songwriter Aretha Franklin's father, Baptist minister and civil rights activist C.L. Franklin in the much-anticipated "Respect," set for release August 21, 2021.
Whitaker's also one of the producers of this year's Sundance film "Passing," a drama starring Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga, set in the 1920s and concerning mixed-race childhood friends that reunite later in life, one attempting to "pass" as white and married to a racist, and the other Black and married to an African-American doctor.
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