Movies  |  Features

Forest Whitaker: Film Person of the Year

January 13, 2014  |  3:50pm
Forest Whitaker: Film Person of the Year

In all of cinematic history, there’s never been a year for African-American cinema quite like 2013. The year opened with Ryan Coogler’s stunning Fruitvale Station breaking out at the Sundance Film Festival with a black director, a black star and a plot that revolves around the tragic killing of a young black man. It ended with Steve McQueen’s masterful 12 Years a Slave winning Best Film from AFI and the Gotham Awards, and looming large in most of the major Oscar races (including Best Picture). In between, there were black comedies (and not just by Tyler Perry), black musicals, black dramas and everything else you’d expect from a vibrant film community. Perhaps most encouragingly, not one but two films centered around the black experience of the civil rights movement—Lee Daniels’ The Butler and 42—crossed the $100 million mark domestically, loudly demonstrating that audiences of all races will go to theaters to see those stories.

And at the heart of much of it stood the imposing, 6’ 2”, 220-pound frame of Forest Whitaker. He produced Fruitvale Station, starred in Lee Daniels’ The Butler and Kasi Lemmons’ throwback musical Black Nativity, and had supporting roles in The Last Stand, Pawns, Zulu and Out of the Furnace. For all of those roles, and for his position as a seminal figure in the development of African-American cinema, Whitaker is our 2013 Film Man of the Year.

Paste: You were born in Texas, but very quickly moved to Los Angeles.
Whitaker: Yes, I was born in Longview, Texas, which is a little town in east Texas. That’s where my family is from. And my parents moved to South Central Los Angeles, when I was a baby. I lived there until I was about 11 years old. Then we moved to Carson, and I lived there till I was about 17 until I went off to college.

Paste: Being a Texas family moving into a very different culture in South Central Los Angeles, did you feel any kind of cultural or environmental tension? Did you feel like you were… did you feel different?
Whitaker: I only felt different out of my odd perceptions about life as a child, I guess, and the way I thought about things—only in that way. My father moved us to Los Angeles because he wanted to give us a better life. He was willing to conquer his fears and leave his family. My grandparents, on my father’s side, lived right near each other on the same property, so you know to leave his family and to come to Los Angeles to give us a better life was a big deal. My mother was putting herself through college, and they were both working really, really hard when I was a kid. My dad had three jobs and my mom was working while she was going to school. I was just trying to understand the world, and in that way I was much more a hermit, I was very private, and kept to myself as a little kid.

Paste: What kind of jobs did they work?
Whitaker: When we first came, my father was working in a school, and she was working all kinds of office jobs just to make things work. He ended up being a life insurance man, and he’s worked for life insurance companies for all of my life. And my mother was a teacher; she got herself through college and two Masters and she was teaching special education to children when I was growing up. As a little kid, I was actually able to go to class with her or to work with her, and that’s how I got some of my perceptions too.

Paste: So you sort of grew up around the world of ideas. Is that fair to say, more than most kids?
Whitaker: My father’s family is full of teachers; they were either teachers or preachers on both sides of the family. I think there were things that I was allowed to explore when I was struggling to try to understand. I remember telling my mother once, “Hey ma, I think if you really listen to people and look at them really close, you can tell what part of the city they’re from, or what part of the country they’re from.” And she’d smile and say, “That’s really interesting”; she was encouraging me to think.

When people came to the door, whether it was Jehovah’s Witnesses or Nation of Islam or all kinds of people, as I was a little kid, I would engage them in conversation and have long conversations with them. With some of them I had a relationship where they’d come and we’d discuss things. And it wasn’t because of those reasons, but other reasons like my not wanting to get up on a Sunday morning, but I remember my mom coming to get me up and I said, “I don’t want to, why must I believe what you believe?” And my mom said, “You don’t have to believe what I believe, but what you do have to do is believe in something. So get up and figure out what you believe.”

I think those sort of contexts were, as you say, creating the atmosphere of safety and open perception. But I was also forged by my father, and now I realize it more because my work ethic is very high, and I realize vicariously, by watching him work so hard, it instilled a belief in me that a part of the foundation of a good life is to work and to better your gifts.

Paste: Yeah, those two sides. It’s hard to imagine two things that would be more important for a child’s formation that to impress upon them the importance of hard work and to impress on them the importance of ideas and to be open-minded and to explore what you exactly believe. That’s a pretty great testament to your parents, I think. So when your mom told you that you didn’t have to believe what she believed and you needed to figure out what you did believe, what did some of those explorations look like for you? When you did your own digging around, spiritually or philosophically or whatever that might have been?
Whitaker: I was always engaged in that kind of conversation. And I think actually martial arts also led me to study the Asian philosophers and made me understand a little bit more about that thought. I started doing martial arts when I was a young kid and I was given one of those first books full of little parables called Inside Kung Fu. I remember reading that book so much.

And then I started study other philosophies. One of my friends was a Buddhist and I would talk to him about that, but we would argue quite often and he would get very upset with me and say to me “Faith is not something that you can argue.” Then I would start reading some of the Middle Eastern philosophers and poets, and they started to shape some of my thoughts as well as making me understand the political atmosphere that was going on. Talking about the condition of African-American and other people on the planet and it broadened my understanding. But it continues to grow; I’m a continuous student of life. I study, and try to improve myself, and digest the truth in whatever form it comes.

Paste: Absolutely. It’s something I really associate strongly with you. I talked to Lenny Kravitz not long ago and it’s something I associate with him too, this sort of relentless discovery process or relentless quest to discover the way life should be lived. Is that something you resonate with?
Whitaker: Yeah, definitely. As we were talking about the different philosophies, and I was looking at the different traditions, the mystics, Gnostic traditions, Taoist traditions, different African cultural traditions, to try to understand all the different forms. But the thing is my art itself, and part of the reason I wanted to go into acting was because the exploration of what you’re talking about right now, is actually my quest. The quest was to continually expose myself to how we’re connected to others, and how we’re all one.

And I think in my acting, that’s what I try to do is continually take away the layers of the character until I get to the light source of the character. That’s what is connected to everyone. And then that’s when I am able to connect with everything from that space. And then I put those layers back on top of the character and construct it in such a way that the petals fall back downward and then I expose that character. I try to do that with the journey of connection, that pursuit the connectivity of humanity and to understand the source and the omnipresence and the omnipotence of the universe and the messages that are already in the ether that are the algorithms of the universe and God. And I think that’s my main journey; it’s my vocation.

section_break.gif

Whitaker came of age in a tumultuous Los Angeles, in the late 1960s and early ’70s. It was the age of the Watts riots, of the Black Panther movement, of tension and often violence between the black community and the government. For an indrawn, sensitive, philosophical soul such as Whitaker, it created impressions that would shape his entire future life. And that process started early.

Paste: Given that this year has seen such an advancement of African-American cinema, and you mentioned early on a special interest in sort of the African-American experience and how you fit into that, I should probably ask you about that. It sounds like a pretty early dawning of thinking about those larger issues of the experience of your race. How did your thought develop in that area?
Whitaker: I think there were certain things that were going on during the time politically. People were marching and there was activation of people all over the place. Our community was involved in the Watts rioting. That was right near me. As a kid it was very scary. I remember the Panthers because they picked me up from school everyday and sometimes I would walk to school with them. So I had a different perception of them than others.

When I was a kid, my universe was like four blocks. I just walked to my school and I would walk back home and I only saw the people that lived there. But there were these things going on and bumping around, and you’d hear the parents talking and you’d see something on the four channels of TV, and I would try to understand it.

As far as this year, it’s amazing, these artists, these auteurs, black artists from all over the diaspora, all over the world, including a Steve McQueen, who are expressing the total fabric of their existence. So you have stories like 12 Years a Slave, or The Butler, or Fruitvale Station, and talking about what we need to do see about human rights or social justice, and all these things that come together with Best Men and all these other films, Black Nativity, a musical. I think that’s the most exciting, the scope of the stories, the visuals and the points of view are so unique and so uniquely different, and they are telling about the different pieces of their own experience this year.

And why that happened, perhaps some of these films have shown that maybe there’s a viable economic upside to doing black films, to prove statistically that they can make a lot of funds based on the investment they return. Hopefully the bigger thing is that the consciousness of the planet and the country is changing, that people are wanting to see more and explore more lives and more experiences, and in that way, in my point of view, it’ll explain more of themselves. To recognize themselves inside of the other is very important. And to see and to understand our connection is very important.

And then there’s the question of the time that we are in, an evolutionary swing, a tipping point I think, where things are starting to move to the other side. You can see the corporations and their mood to try to be more socially conscious which is something they recognize is in the zeitgeist of the culture that they need to exploit or also be a part of. And that will continue the same cycle to allow more of these films. Because we are in a different time where investments are different in filmmaking. You used to go solely to studios to make certain movies. Now the tapestry is big and you can get independent financing for films. So certain filmmakers have made their films independently as Lee Daniels did, as Ryan Coogler did. I’m hopeful, I’m excited to see the movement of other cultures, for the Latins, for the Asians, for the Natives to have their voices heard. Hopefully that will spring forth, with more stories unveiling the whole of our humanity.

Paste: Much like the American Civil Rights movement in the ’60s spurred other civil rights movements around the globe and encouraged them, I think you’re right that this explosion of black cinema and re-focusing on civil rights in America can ignite that same sort of worldwide concern as well. And certainly for those of us who are trying to get those really important stories told, you and Steve McQueen and the guys who made 42 and all those guys have definitely given us all a huge boost by re-energizing the cultural conversation and by showing the financial viability of those stories, that people are interested in those stories. Tell me about, in all this development of your consciousness, at what point does acting and directing become something that makes you think, “Wow I really want to do that, I want to be in that, I want to be plugged into that”?

Whitaker: I got a lot of enjoyment out of music when I was in high school. I didn’t take any acting classes, but I did a couple of musicals when I was there, and it went on from there to musical instruments. And then at college I started to explore acting as a way of expressing myself more than singing opera or classical music.

It wasn’t at the beginning of my acting that I felt sure of myself. Actually, it was probably a decade into my work or longer that I felt I had achieved some kind of success. I was doubting myself as to whether this was what I was destined to do. But then at some point it fell to me and I truly believed that it was my path. That was so deep into my career. My folks were always saying, “You could still go back to school” or “We thought you were going to be a doctor or a lawyer.” So it was a long time in, but at some point it happened, and when it happened I’m not quite sure.

Paste: Despite them being surprised that you didn’t go on to be a doctor or a lawyer, were they supportive when you went into the arts? I know your grandfather had been a novelist, right?
Whitaker: I know somebody wrote that, but no, my grandfather was a retired railroad man and farmer and my other grandfather was a preacher for over 50 years. So no. They didn’t see it as a practical road to be able to survive, so they really wanted me to do something else. I had opportunities in athletics or academics to excel, and they were really encouraging me to go the other direction. That’s what they could understand and they just wanted to make sure I would have a good quality of life. And at some point they started to realize that I would be able to take care of myself. I was very idealistic when I was younger; I read poetry books, I didn’t care about working or making money. I would rather sleep on the couch than do something I didn’t believe in. They were always trying to get me to get my head out of the clouds. But they finally understand. I think that it was in our blood in some way too, because my brothers all have artists’ souls. And even though I sheltered my kids form the business, they are very much artistic spirits too.

section_break.gif

Whitaker’s first film role was in Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But his real break came when, over the course of two years, he appeared in Martin Scorsese’s The Color Of Money (1986) as Amos, the aw-shucks hustler who unforgettably gets the better of an unsuspecting Paul Newman; in Oliver Stone’s Platoon (1986) as Big Harold, one of the only rays of goodness in a bleak Vietnam nightmare; and in Barry Levinson’s Good Morning Vietnam (1987) as the straight man sidekick to Robin Williams. That run established him as an actor that major directors wanted to cast.

Paste: I don’t want to go too much into Fast Times at Ridgemont High, because I know that you get asked about that a lot, and I know your part is relatively small. But I did put out a call to all my Facebook and Twitter friends as to what I should ask you and about half of the questions were Fast Times questions. That movie is so beloved and I think people love the idea of seeing you so young, at the beginning of your career. I guess what I’m curious to ask about Fast Times is not so much about your performance in it, but more of your experience of it. Because it was your first film role and there were some people that were already stars in the film in that time. Did you have the impression of “Wow, this is my big break, this is a big deal!”?
Whitaker: I knew that it was a big deal. I was in school when I did it, and most of us were starting out—Sean Penn and myself, it was most of our first films almost, Phoebe Cates and everyone like that. I remember just trying and wanting to do something complex, but not feeling I had the latitude to do that. I remember Sean Penn was in character all the time, and I remember having these conversations behind me about stealing my bag as Spicoli. But while we were working there was a lot of camaraderie. And Amy Heckerling has been able to capture the voice of youth several times. She really put together a lot of brilliant and interesting artists. Nic Cage was in the movie, Eric Stoltz, so many of us in the film at the beginning of our careers. We knew we were doing something, we just weren’t sure what, you know?

Paste: Then you did a bunch of TV and you did Vision Quest, and all of a sudden in 1986 and 1987, completely out of nowhere, you had great roles in movies by Martin Scorsese, Oliver Stone and Barry Levinson. Now if you want to talk about breaks as an actor, I think most actors in LA would probably give their eyes, teeth, and an arm too maybe, if in two years they could have substantial roles in films by Scorsese, Stone and Levinson. How did that happen? Did it all come together at once? How did those roles come to you?

Whitaker: They all had different stories. With Scorsese, I had an audition for the role in The Color of Money, and I didn’t get the job. I didn’t audition for him but they put me on tape and sent it to him. But the character was supposed to be a young yuppie character. But then they ended up firing the actor because he couldn’t play pool. I got a call and they asked me if I would be willing to fly myself to Chicago to audition for Martin Scorsese for the role, and they asked if I could start in two weeks, and I said, “Yeah sure, I’ll do it.” So I immediately went to the pool hall for two weeks just training myself to play pool, because I was not a good pool player at all. I’d be playing pool for 12-14 hours a day. I flew myself to Chicago, and the first thing Martin Scorsese asked me to do was play pool. I played the 9-ball champion of the world. Fortunately for me, he wanted to show Marty Scorsese about 8-ball. And I got the break. So it was like a candy store for me because I had been practicing so hard. This was just solids and stripes. I was very much in character and very confident. So they gave me the job, and they even reimbursed me actually for my flight, so that was cool.

And with Oliver, I had an affinity for Vietnam, and I feel like it’s something that has affected life, that particular war, and I’ve tried to understand it. So as you see I’ve done three or four movies on Vietnam. My cousin went off to the Vietnam War, and he used to live with me in my house. My cousin was like my older brother, and then he went off to war, he was never the same again, and has never been the same again. And as a result I wanted something to understand, I searched for some way to understand it, how I lost my cousin. So I auditioned for Platoon. Platoon at the time was very avant garde. My agents didn’t want me to do it. It was an independent film and no one knew Oliver, and there was a military coup going on at the time with Ferdinand Marcos in Manila. But I went in to audition and Oliver—I must have auditioned six or eight times, and then he would have me come back and I would be the only one there and I’d ask him “Did I get the part?” And he’d say “No, you still need to work on it and try harder.” It went on for a while. Ultimately, he did give me the role. I talked to my people and they tried to get me not to do it. They were scared for my safety. And finally I said “OK, I won’t do it. And I called Oliver and he’s like, “Why won’t you do my movie?” and I explained what’s up, and he said I should do the movie. So then I decided to do the movie. So I negotiated the deal myself and I went over to Manila.

It was just a normal process with Barry. It was a great experience though. I stayed on the river in an apartment. We went all up and down the river and explored different things in Thailand and was it quite life-changing.

section_break.gif

But it was an old cowboy and a jazz man that would vault Whitaker to leading-man status. Clint Eastwood cast him to play the lead in his 1988 Charlie Parker biopic Bird. It was a tough assignment; just two years earlier Dexter Gordon (an actual jazz legend) had earned plaudits for his portrayal of a saxophonist in Round Midnight. Whitaker, on the other hand, had never played the saxophone—or carried a film before. But his performance bespeaks the emergence of a major talent; it’s in turn expansive, charismatic, tortured and self-destructive. It’s still a favorite among fans.

Paste: Before we leave the ’80s, I am going to talk about Bird because it’s many people’s favorite role of yours. It’s one of my favorite roles of yours too. And I’d love for you to tell me more about getting into the head of Charlie Parker. And also given that Eastwood doesn’t like to do rehearsal and likes to really get those takes the first time the words come out of your mouth. I’m curious to see how you responded and whether you thought that was a valuable challenge or a frustrating challenge. Or both.
Whitaker: I was amazed that he trusted me at a time I hadn’t really done anything to merit that, I guess. I wasn’t sure, so I had to dance through my fears in order to play the part. When I got the job, I sat with Clint and we just talked about jazz and music. I remember leaving and calling my agent and saying “I believe I have the job, but I’m not quite sure.” So then I bought a sax at a pawn shop. I didn’t realize it was a broken saxophone. Actually, I ended up being able to play the saxophone better because I had to work so hard to get a good sound out of it. Lennie Niehaus taught me how to play, and it was an all-consuming experience. I moved out of my place and moved downtown to a loft and covered all of my windows with photographs. There’s not really any really tape of him; there’s one short moment where he speaks on film, so I was studying all these photographs for movements and postures of how I can play him. And I started studying his life and studying his music and playing sax all day long. And from that experience I decided to dive inside the character and completely live there. And he was very supportive of me and believed in what I was doing. It was an amazing experience. We’d go from one set to the next set and he would just say, “Okay, you ready?” and we’d just shoot. Someone told me he did more takes with me than he ever did; we’d do four or five takes. He had such a deep love for jazz. It was actually one of the more difficult experiences; I was trying to translate emotional feelings in his life to notes on his sax. And why his improvisations would go in certain directions based on emotional things going on. He was in pain so it was a more difficult character. People talk about Idi Amin, but in this case, you wake up as Charlie Parker and you have this feeling not to go on. It really was an amazing experience and I experienced the world, when we went to Cannes. I hadn’t gone to a festival or to Europe. It was just a life changing experience. And people saw the movie and perceived me as more of an artist than just someone they saw on TV.

Paste: I bet that Clint Eastwood putting his faith in you in a major film has to have an impact on you.
Whitaker: I don’t know if I could say that. I think that it made me try to meet the challenge and be the best I could be and give the most that I could give. And I learned a lot in that film. From Bird, I learned to walk out on a limb and dance on a limb, and know that if I fall, I will be okay. Even if I break my arm, I will survive. So I need to give and dance through my fears. And Bird taught me that. I would say that Ghost Dog taught me about silence and the power of vibrations, the frequency that you exist on, and how it can affect people. Sometimes Jim [Jarmusch] would put the camera in my face and follow me for six minutes and I would be doing nothing, you know? And then The Last King of Scotland taught me more about transmutation and how to shift my energy enough to truly become someone else, and to disappear and surrender to the character and to the space. And I think The Butler taught me to surrender completely. Even though there was so much work around it that I had to do. There was a falling into the surrender.
Paste: I’ve heard that [Butler director] Lee Daniels tends to have the power to draw that out of people, to surrender and trust.
Whitaker: Yeah I think that he works differently with everyone. I know for myself he’s always trying to make me feel confident that I was able to communicate more than I realize. That you could feel what I was thinking. And I didn’t have to work so hard to do so. That I could give him less. He’d say, “Give me half of that. Give me less. It’s there.” And he’s able to bring together a group of people and put them on a mission of doing special together. He’s unique in that way.

section_break.gif

From the late ’80s to the mid-Aughts, Whitaker’s outings were inconsistent. Jim Jarmusch’s brilliant Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) was a career highlight, as was Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game (1992). And he did outstanding work for more great directors like Alan Pakula (Consenting Adults, 1992), Abel Ferrara (Body Snatchers (1993), Robert Altman (Pret-A-Porter, 1994), and David Fincher (Panic Room, 2002) . But seemingly just as often, his choices seemed uninspired. He directed three workmanlike films that, for most, failed to tap into his greatness as an artist. But all that would change in 2006, when Kevin Macdonald tapped him to play Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. The role was possibly the greatest of Whitaker’s career, and would win him an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role.

Paste: Joe Morgenstern, one of my favorite critics, calls your performance in The Last King of Scotland “one of the greatest performances in modern movie history,” and I don’t think he is overstating that. It is a powerful, monumental and stunning performance. I’m curious about the palpable sense of tension and pressure every time Amin is on the screen and that smile that hides the ruthlessness. How did you create that?
Whitaker: I did a lot of work and research on the character, and I think that underneath everything was an underlying need to connect, and there was a great deal of insecurity and fear. And I think that when you have a man who is praised all of his life for his brutality in the field, and understands how to survive in the wars and to come out as a champion, which he was, and then you put him in a position where you expect him to follow your orders, and then he feels like he’s surrounded by enemies, that survival mode he goes into is pretty intense. I think it underlies the character.

I started to work in Los Angeles learning Swahili, because I thought it was important to switch my mind to Swahili and believe that English was my second language. And I think that the idioma, or the understanding, or the sort of way of speaking was crucial to understanding the rhythm of the character. And that the same time I was studying the history. And people would call me, you would be surprised, people would call and say, “I hope you aren’t going to make this character into a cardboard character, because he’s not.” He was a representation of something very important in the African movement.

I learned the language and the accordion, which seem like two different things, but they were part of the keys into the character. The accordion is a social instrument, you can carry anywhere and create a party. Which was a big part of him—he loved to be with people and to have joy and to create these parties. So then I got to Uganda and I was meeting all of his relatives, and people who had been hurt by him, and his ministers, and all of this started to build itself even while Kevin was still writing the script. We were there a month or so before the movie even began. And Kevin was re-writing the script, and I was learning more Swahili, and we added more. I was fluently speaking Swahili with his people.

And James was a great, great actor. He really held up my character by the way he was seduced by what I was doing, by the way he was allowing that to happen. It made the performance really powerful. And when I started to get this understanding of this background it gave me a base, pulling away all those layers. And when I put them back on, there was still this base, this underlying—some people would say menace, I guess. But you have his survival instinct, and his need to connect, and his fears. You know?

Paste: I love that you mentioned about seducing McAvoy’s character, because he is really seductive . The first half of the movie, the essence of the connection in between McAvoy’s character and Amin, it’s almost set up like a romantic comedy. It’s almost like two people falling in love. The glances you exchange. It was a great word you used.

Let’s talk about The Shield, which happens to be my favorite show of all time. At this point in your career, you’ve said that you felt like you had sort of re-discovered your art in this period, it connected you to a different level. And I assume The Last King of Scotland was a big part of that. And I assume one of the beneficiaries was your amazing work on Shield. I always say that show has at least four Hall of Fame performances in it: Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins, Glenn Close and you. Tell me about getting into the head of Kavanaugh and getting into the ensemble that was already clicking, what kind of challenges that presented you to do your work there?

Whitaker: It was very positive, and I came in with no understanding of their work, and my character comes in and turns over the apple cart, you know? When I was sitting down and talking with them they were wondering if the show was going to end or not, and the character was going to possibly be the one that could bring Mackey down. And then we started talking about the character’s demons and I wanted to explore the idea that he was an archangel, in my mind. The archangel is programmed to do one function, and he has no free will like a human being. And when he breaks that code, it destroys him. For me, it was very clear. I will do anything and everything to stop this person from causing harm. And slowly you see the degradation of his character, as he becomes more and more like Mackey. So when I was working on the character, I was trying to show that he was becoming more and more on the hunt, more and more angled into what his purpose was, which was to stop this energy of Mackey. And as a result, I told them that I was going to get hungrier and hungrier every time I make a mistake. And that’s why I decided to lose weight for each episode. I think I lost 10 suit sizes in the course of that TV series, because I was just getting hungrier and hungrier. I was not only getting leaner, I was getting cleaner. You see him in the beginning and he’s very scruffy. You know? He’s got this dilapidated beard and everything. And by the end he’s bald and lean and looked, in a way, more like Mackey.

When I came into the show, I had to be inside the character. I couldn’t know everybody. But everyone was really supportive—Kenny and Goggins and everyone. And the writing was really amazing. It was great to work with them, especially with Kenny. It was a great introduction to working with him. I was not predictable, and the character was not predictable, and that’s how I wanted to be. But it was a good process with getting to know them, and the character getting to know them more as it goes on. It was a really powerful experience. I think to get a chance to do a series that was the first series with this kind of writing and these kind of actors was unique.

Paste: And the luxury with that long arc too, to not just have an hour and a half to sell your character but to have hours and hours.
Whitaker: Yeah, I did like that. It was perfect at that time; I did 12 episodes and they ended up splitting them between two seasons. I understand why you love the show; it’s always exploring right at the line of good and evil.

section_break.gif

If you really want to see Forest Whitaker light up, even more than talking about the film work he loves so dearly, talk to him about his charitable work. Of course it’s fashionable for every celebrity to have a charity, but Whitaker’s isn’t tacked on; it’s a completely organic extension of who he is. Of his strength of character, his soulfulness, his nobility. Of that Texas kid that was raised by a hardworking father and an intellectually demanding mother in the heart of Watts. Whitaker isn’t really Charlie Parker, or Idi Amin, or Cecil Gaines, although there are big parts of him in each of them. To know who Forest Whitaker really is, you have to hear about the foundation.

Paste: Let’s talk about PeaceEarth, or what it’s now called the Whitaker Foundation.
Whitaker: It’s the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative; there were some trademark issues were around the original name. That’s currently what it is called. Actually, I am going today to Mexico to start the program there. We have a program in Uganda, South Sudan and Mexico. And we’re starting into a program for the school system in the U.S.; we’re working with a university on that. Today I’ll be in Tijuana, and we begin training 34 youths from 15 to 20 years old for the next three years. We start tomorrow.

Paste: Tell me about what lead you to start the organization.
Whitaker: There’s a couple of things, like when we talked about earlier. I remember, when I was in a corner as a little kid, being lifted up by these Panthers, and they had the breakfast programs where they would feed the kids for free. I remember like when I would turn the corner to go to my school and I would pass that place. And I remember the day I walked by it, it had been blown up. It had been shot up, you know? I remember it really well, you know. And then I remember very well when they took out the SLA behind my grandmother’s apartment. I walked into that building—I walked through there after it was boarded up later, I snuck inside that room. You know what I mean? It had some impact on me and then, you have my cousin who is so instrumental in me trying to understand war and conflict. I had to leave my junior high because I had problems with gangs there. And so I was bussed across to school; that’s why I ended up going way across town to school, because of the gangs at my school. And so, later I would start doing little things like working with people with domestic violence issues, then I started working with gangs.

So then when I actually did Last King of Scotland I had been doing that kind of work and I was asked to go to a couple orphanages. I went to an orphanage in the north with a man who was trying to form this school, and I told him I wanted to help. So I started helping, sometimes I would finance the building of the dorm, or I would raise money or I would build a well. I started to deal with them. And this place was centered around child soldiers. It was all about the LRA and child soldiers. The kids there were from that, he himself had been a soldier, and he escaped and his brother had been killed. And I started looking at that and seeing parallels between that and the gangs in my home. Then I came back and I was continuing to do my work, and I took some of their stories back and I had been asking to go to the U.N. to speak on peace-building. So I went there and I showed them this documentary that I had done, and what was going on with them, and then they asked me to be a Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation. I took that position. I took it seriously. I started to formulate an institute at Rutgers, which is an International Institute for Peace. It’s a Masters of PA program and we have our very first class this year; we have the first class of five people in the masters program. But I needed it to be on the ground and I needed to be able to work aggressively on the ground. So that’s when I formed PeaceEarth, to be that on-the-ground element and complement the academic work that we were doing at the university. From working with all these kids for a long time I had certain things I thought holistically needed to be handled, and so I created a program of conflict transformation that consisted of life coaching, ICT’s (information communication technology), and kids forming their action plans for their own communities to change, which we would help. I became the harmonizer of a program we would implement. I went in and I implemented it in Uganda, and I went in and implemented it on the ground in South Sudan and Cuba. Unfortunately, right now my operations in Sudan are having some problems with the conflict there. So all of my staff has had to flee the country. Now they are all in Uganda and Nairobi; they have all moved to escape the conflict. I’m gonna start doing some work with them. We are going to reinstate ourselves when the conflict leaves.

So now, I’m starting this program tomorrow, my staff flew in yesterday, all the rest of them are arriving today, we have a partnership with Ericcsson, who give us computers and phones, a number of organizations in México, TelMex, and the University of Baja in California. And we will be training them for three years, and we’ll be moving into three different states in Mexico and training people in conflict transformation and working with them to be community builders and agents of change. So there’s my foundation work, the core is from inner peace to outer peace because we do meditation and transformation and yoga as well, giving them the tools so they can deal with the stress that’s present in their lives. So this is the organization and we are just now starting to work on a tween program, developing a curriculum for the U.S. schools for bullying and gangs and the conflicts that occur on the tween level before kids move into that middle- school area. The age range between 11 and 12 is what we are looking at. And we are working on that with Cal State University Dominguez Hills, which turns out to be one of the few schools that has an internet conflict transformation program, which I needed to be able to work through because we’re a global organization.

Paste: That’s an incredible scope of activities. It’s kind of dizzying, actually. In 20 years when you look back at what this organization has done, what do you want to see? What are your dreams for it?
Whitaker: It will be a youth network that will be set up across the world that will not just be in areas of conflict but areas of peace. That these individuals will be moving humanity towards a bigger and better place of connectivity and peace, and activating the network or the binding twine that allows the planet to find its stasis in peace.

Paste: Last question. You and I are almost the same age, and I know from experience that this is a time when a lot of men take a look and say “Okay, what do I want to accomplish with the rest of my life?” I know that the foundation and all the dreams that you just told me about are a huge part of that. But professionally—acting, directing and producing—having accomplished so much already in your career, same question: When you look back in 20 years what do you want to see from your career?
Whitaker: I’m hoping that I can leave a legacy that allows you to connect and understand humanity in a deeper way. To unveil the faces of all those individuals you think are different and see the connectivity between you and them. That the stories that I do will invoke to be an initiatory device to allow people to change towards good—at least to create dialogue around how to create a better space for us all to live together. And that hopefully, in that will be elements of fun and elements of joy, and always elements of truth. That everything I do contains the element of truth.

comments powered by Disqus
Load More