Do you recall the first time you recognized Forest Whitaker, when he was in the kind of role that made you take notice of his presence? Was it back in 1986 when he appeared in his first major double feature: as Big Harold in Oliver Stone’s Platoon and as the pool shark Amos in The Color of Money? How about two years later in Clint Eastwood’s Bird where he played Charlie “Bird” Parker? Did the mere of idea of him as Jody in The Crying Game break your heart? I tend to latch onto his 1999 lead role in Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a hooded shadow even in daylight, free only when he practiced meditation on the rooftop with his sword, an extension of a more graceful and deadly weapon.
Whitaker finally won an Academy Award for his lead performance in the 2006 release The Last King of Scotland, but most of us were simply waiting, patiently, for the Academy to catch up with what we all knew: This man, this actor (seemingly not one of those capital “A” actors who were all technique and method) was and always had been the real deal. Whitaker has disappeared into a multitude of characters, adding points along the map, into undiscovered territories: cops of all stripes; smooth criminals; bad men with good, strong hearts; brash, cocky fellows; and men of quiet determination and unshakeable faith. There is no “Forest Whitaker type,” and that is what makes him more than a star. Stars, by the very nature of the Hollywood industry game, are always themselves, some version of who we imagine them to be. Yet we would be hard-pressed to come up with an idea of who Forest Whitaker is.
And that’s quite a mean feat for a performer who in 2013, as quietly and unassumingly as ever, had the kind of year that is the envy of actors and stars alike.
Step into the way-back machine and watch as we rewind to the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Last Stand. You’ll find Whitaker there as Agent John Bannister, a thankless role backing up the aging He-Man’s return to the screen after retiring from politics (and running away from personal scandal).
By late summer, Whitaker was back again, this time as Cecil Gaines, the steady emotional center of Lee Daniels’ The Butler. This was Whitaker gently taking our hands and guiding us safely through the pivotal and tumultuous moments of American history.
He pinned on another badge as Chief Wesley Barnes in Scott Cooper’s Out of the Furnace, marshaling his brand of dignity and righteousness in the face of hellish darkness. Barnes adds up to little more than a cameo, but Whitaker shows us the terrible toll of walking so close to the fire. The Whitaker year ends with his faith tested in Black Nativity as Reverend Cornell Cobbs, a staunchly righteous man in need of redemption.
Deliberation and critical consideration of each performance listed here shows subtle nuance, an almost invisible rendering of traits and characteristics that speaks to human special effects.
But Whitaker slipped in another hidden gem as part of this magnificent run, serving as a producer for Ryan Coogler’s Fruitvale Station, the Sundance indie darling that captured the final day in the life of Oscar Grant (Michael B. Jordan), an early twentysomething San Francisco Bay area resident who tragically lost his life during an encounter with transit cops on New Year’s Eve in 2008. Station might seem like a quintessential indie drama, destined to garner positive buzz and politically correct media coverage in this post-racial age, but all of that contributes to the need for an angel to usher this project through the machine. Much has been made of Brad Pitt’s role as a producing shepherd for 12Years a Slave, not to mention his iconic presence in front of the camera as the man willing to stand up and do the right thing for illegally enslaved Solomon Northup.
Whitaker’s behind-the-scenes support for Fruitvale Station highlights a much more significant changing of the guard. During the course of this year, Whitaker has embodied the internal struggle of black folks moving from merely accepting their place to standing up for what is right (the Civil Rights transition) and coming out the other end, championing a truly post-racial vision for the future on film. We would do well to follow his lead, wherever he takes us next.
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