by Jason Koenigsberg
Last week when the Star Wars: Rogue One trailer premiered online, one person really stood out that caught my attention. Forest Whitaker has a few scenes in the trailer and we can assume has an important supporting role in the film. To me, Forest Whitaker is one of the most unusual and perplexing actors of the past thirty years. Throughout his career has has created a nice balance of leading and supporting roles and divides his time evenly between independent films and big studio productions. He has unconventional looks for a movie star. An African-American with a hulking, stocky frame, big ears and a droopy eye. It is quite interesting he has earned so many great roles with great directors and been able to work so consistently for three decades. The reason is not only his intense talent on the screen but also that he is humble. No part is too small for him and Whitaker is a memorable screen presence in every film he stars in. He is very content being a character actor who lands lead roles every so often.
He won an Academy Award in 2006 for playing Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, only the fourth African-American actor to win the Oscar for Best Actor. His win is one of the least celebrated and referenced Oscar wins that I am willing to bet many people either forgot he won or do not know that he has a Best Actor Oscar in the first place.
What perplexes me the most about Forest Whitaker is his acting. His scenes always feel like he is in a completely different movie than everybody else. His overly serious manner and the way he changes his voice create an odd talent that he brings to virtually every movie that he stars in. There has are very few other actors that consistently bring such an enigmatic quality to their roles.
His career started out in the 80’s with a string of supporting roles in what are now considered modern classics such as Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Platoon (1986) and Good Morning, Vietnam (1987). Forest Whitaker did not get his first leading role until playing jazz great Charlie Parker in the criminally under seen biopic Bird (1988) directed by Clint Eastwood. This is where he started to establish himself as a legitimate film presence but it would not be until 1992 in the Academy Award winning film The Crying Game that Forest Whitaker really created his shtick that seems as if he is acting in his own separate movie from the rest of the cast.
But for The Crying Game, his method of acting really worked. His character is only in the first half hour of Neil Jordan’s film and he is the catalyst that sets the events that follow for Stephen Rea’s character. The actual plot unravels once Whitaker’s character leaves the picture making the first twenty minutes or so feel like it’s own short film. Personally I found the story between Rea’s IRA radical and Whitaker as his prisoner to be so compelling, I wish their dynamic continued and made the rest of The Crying Game seem like an afterthought as well as a completely different movie. You can argue that Forest Whitaker’s character was meant to stand out and feel different since it was his departure that set everything else into motion, but some of Whitaker’s acting in other movies really have no explanation for his eccentric qualities.
Forest Whitaker’s supporting role in the Jeff Bridges/Tommy Lee Jones mad bomber action movie Blown Away (1994) would stand out from the other actors, but one could almost rationalize that. He is the lone black character in a film that takes place in Boston, one of the very few cities in North America where an African-American might stand out like a sore thumb. As liberal as Beantown might be, they have a long way to go regarding race relations especially with African-Americans. See what Denzel Washington said here about how uncomfortable he felt filming The Equalizer (2014) in Boston.
Jump to the summer of 1995 with the sci-fi thriller Species and this is where the Forest Whitaker shitck starts to really become noticeable. Directed by Roger Donaldson, Species is about a sexy alien seductress (Natasha Henstridge in her movie debut) that needs to mate with a human. It is like a low-brow Alien (1979) with more prurient intrigue. A quintessential B-movie with a larger budget, above average special effects and big name talent including Whitaker, Ben Kingsley, Michael Madsen, and Alfred Molina. Everyone seems to be in on that they are making a glorified guilty pleasure, everyone that is except for Forest Whitaker. He plays a psychic with a sort of overly sensitive quality that can feel and sense emotions by being in a certain location and touching certain objects who is recruited to be on the team to track down this alien who is on the loose in L.A. That description alone of his character and the plot sound absurd and tough to take seriously, but Whitaker plays his psychic as if he were starring in a prestigious Merchant-Ivory Oscar bait production. But not in the way that his overacting is a self-parody or comical, his scenes are just weird and awkward, like all the other actors were in on a joke except for him. Or like his performance was meant for another movie, or another director came and only directed Whitaker. It feels like he’s not only in another movie, but on another planet and this is a trend that will continue in Forest Whitaker’s filmography many more times.
In all of these roles Forest Whitaker brings a bizarre, weird quality that seems like he is on another planet from the other actors. The one role of his career and the role that suits perfectly with Forest Whitaker’s acting style is Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000). This is the film he should have won an Academy Award for, or at the very least earned a Best Actor nomination. In Ghost Dog, Whitaker plays a homeless man in Newark, New Jersey who lives as if he is a samurai in Japan during the middle ages following the strict samurai code as he takes on the New Jersey Mafia. Feel free to re-read that synopsis, it is an oddball gangster movie that is surprisingly very humorous. Written and directed by independent cinema icon Jim Jarmusch, Ghost Dog is one of Jasmusch’s very best pictures. The director once stated that if Forest Whitaker turned down the lead role, he would have scrapped the entire movie. After seeing the film, it is easy to understand why. Ghost Dog is not only an indelible and unique independent treasure it is the film that best encapsulates Forest Whitaker’s career. His acting style makes the part of a misfit, homeless samurai the most perfect role for him and it is impossible to imagine anyone else playing Ghost Dog.
As the twenty-first century continued, Forest Whitaker would continue to act constantly in supporting and lead roles for big budget mainstream pictures and independent films. Ironically, his “leading role” as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, which would win him his Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, was actually more of a supporting performance to James McAvoy who portrayed the title role. Also, just like the majority of Whitaker’s other films, he is acting on a completely different plane than everyone else and once again like some of his previous roles, it is excusable because after all he is playing Idi Amin.
2013 was a big year for Forest Whitaker with one of the biggest roles of his career in Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Here he played Cecil Gaines, the real life title role as a long time server to many presidents from the second half of the twentieth century. He stood out from all of the other characters in the movie because as history was happening that effected a lot of African-American’s he was seeing it from a very unique vantage point as an insider with a privileged job in the service industry. His character was meant to stand out as a stereotypical “Uncle Tom” that as experiences unfold and tragic events occur he changes his views about his values and our government.
Two other notable roles in his filmography that fit this description of Forest Whitaker feeling like he is in a completely different movie than everyone else are The Last Stand with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Out of the Furnace with Christian Bale. Both were released in 2013 and both are very good films on their own merit. The former, Forest Whitaker and all of his scenes feel like they are from a completely different film from Schwarzenegger’s scenes not just because of his acting but because of the lighting, editing and sound effects. Whitaker is mostly in Las Vegas trying to chase after an escaped drug lord and Arnold is the Sheriff of a small border town where the notorious convict ends up. The two actors do not share any screen time until the final moments.
The latter is a heavy drama about family loyalty and deep regret due to lost time. Whitaker again plays a cop and again is in his usual overly serious mode, which would have normally fit this deep melodrama but inexplicably for no reason that I can infer, Forest Whitaker drastically alters his voice to some sort of gruff tone that is almost comical to the point where it sounds like sandpaper scratching a rough surface every time he speaks. A weird element he added to a performance that once again made his acting stand out from all the other performances.
I am sure there are many other examples throughout Forest Whitaker’s filmography that support this theory of every time he acts he is almost in his own completely different movie from everyone else, sometimes so drastically that he is on a different planet than the other actors. There is no denying Whitaker is an extremely talented thespian and his body of work has created a career that will never be duplicated.
Below is a trailer for Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, the best and most perfect role of his career, along with a music video by Bad Books featuring a montage of his work. Listen to the lyrics as they describe many of the roles Forest Whitaker has played.