One of my favorite things about Forest Whitaker as an actor is the fact that you can see him pop up just about anywhere. Few Best Actor Oscar winners have a resume as diverse and fascinating as his. You can see him playing a mentor role in films now, including major releases from both Star Wars and the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The blunt, honest humanity that can be found in a lot of his performances allow him to transcend the magical negro trope. Whitaker can play teachers, men of considerable wisdom, but there is nothing god-like about these characters. He is often at his best playing people who have come by their wisdom through long bouts of powerful trauma.
There is the quality of a passionate survivor to his best recent performances that highlight his various roles in the 80s, 90s, and 2000s. In those decades, he was everything to the funny, scene-stealing best friend, to a brilliant, far-too-infrequent leading man. His younger characters brought an anxiousness to much of what they said and did. Whitaker could play those roles so well, it was easy to see him show up just about anywhere. As he entered middle age, he found more opportunities to play characters who had moved on, if only a little, from their insecurities and anxiety.
Taken as a whole, the career of Forest Whitaker can make for a truly diverse film festival.
The Color of Money (1986)
Although inferior to The Hustler, this sequel to that 1961 film is pretty fucking satisfying from start to finish. It is one of Tom Cruise’s more interesting performances, and it was where Paul Newman finally won the Oscar he should have won decades ago. The movie also benefits from Martin Scorsese’s ability to make almost anything interesting, including watching other people play a game like pool.
Forest Whitaker’s role as Amos, a pool hustler with a slightly disconcerting, oddly good-natured vicious streak, is a small role. There are a couple of actors in The Color of Money who were destined for bigger things later on (John Turturro is another). Whitaker only gets a little bit of screen time, but he makes the most of it. His character is an important part of the brave new world that “Fast” Eddie Felson (Newman) finds himself in. Amos has such great potential as an ongoing antagonist, we watch this movie, and we wish he would show up a little more often. I would even go so far as to say that I would have preferred Whitaker in the talented young punk role taken by Cruise. Such a move would have made a good film an amazing one instead.
Amazingly ignored during awards season, Bird might be one of the few notable examples of a white guy competently telling the story of a black musician. Hell, it might even be the only one, although I’m sure someone will disagree with me. Bird is a wild, freewheeling, performance-focused biopic that benefits from two things. Forest Whitaker’s work as the lead is obviously one of those things, but we’ll get to that in a second.
The other would be director Clint Eastwood’s well-known penchant for being a fairly low-key director. Even in his worst films, this quality allows the actors to work with a pace and tone that makes sense to them. Like other Eastwood leading men, Whitaker seems to be largely left to his own devices to create his impression of the legendary bebop pioneer Charlie “Bird” Parker. What results from that is a performance that is such a staggering standout from everything else Whitaker did on film and TV in the 80’s, when his career began.
That isn’t to say that Whitaker didn’t give good performances in the films/shows leading up to Bird. That includes The Color of Money, but we’re not actively trying to disregard movies like Platoon, or Good Morning Vietnam. It’s just that with Bird, we are getting a flawless, unique performance from an actor who is given a lot to do, simply by virtue of the story and its complex subject matter. Bird needs a powerful, enigmatic force to stand as its centerpiece, in order to be anything that is worth your time. Whitaker’s success in creating that centerpiece is profound and absolute. To the point where you will honestly wonder why this performance wasn’t a dramatic game-changer for his career. The Oscar would come much later.
The Crying Game (1992)
While there are elements to Neil Jordan’s 1992 critical darling The Crying Game that are certainly problematic, you won’t find that quality in Forest Whitaker’s small, pivotal role. As a British soldier being held against his will by the IRA, Whitaker’s Jody almost immediately establishes a bond with one of the IRA volunteers (Stephen Rea, another considerably underrated actors). It isn’t hard to see why. Even under such daunting, tragic circumstances, Jody is a surprisingly easy-going guy. It is one of the many unfortunate elements to this story that he must be a soldier at all. Someone like Jody should clearly be doing other things, and it is Whitaker’s portrayal that creates this reoccurring thought.
Jody sets the tone for our interest in the rest of the movie. This isn’t just because Jody mentions a girlfriend, who Rea’s character seeks out during the film’s second half. It is because Whitaker’s performance establishes that this a movie about relationships from unexpected situations and backgrounds. The chemistry between Whitaker and Rea is nothing short of outstanding, and it is far and away the best part of this slightly-overrated movie.
Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)
What sounds like an action movie is really just writer/director Jim Jarmusch’s tribute to Le Samourai. The movie isn’t a rip-off by any means, but it’s hard to ignore the similarities. Jarmusch brings a trademark low-key intensity to all of his films. It gels nicely with the fact that this does feel at times like an Americanized version of a French-Italian crime movie from the 1960s. It’s just that the American in this case is one of the weirdest, most distinctive voices in the last thirty or so years of independent cinema. This gives Ghost Dog a range of personal touches that allows it to stand nicely and firmly on its own two feet. The casting of Forest Whitaker as Ghost Dog is perhaps the most personal touch of all.
Forest Whitaker can play hideous, cruel men with ease. However, I think I generally like him best in roles that allow him to combine his own personality and energy with men of courage, strength, and compassion. Ghost Dog misses the occasional chance to take us deeper into Ghost Dog’s mind and world. What we are given is enough to satisfy, particularly in the way Whitaker creates a figure who carries so much of his history in the way he speaks, moves, and rests. Whitaker is a talented enough actor to play characters who fuel our imaginations, showing us more than what is actually being presented on screen.
The Last King of Scotland (2006)
Before and after 2006’s The Last King of Scotland, there are many stellar examples of Forest Whitaker movies that we can cite. Before Ghost Dog alone, you may want to look for him in movies like Prêt-à-Porter, Smoke, Body Snatchers, and Phenomenon. Moving in to the early 2000s, there are films such as Panic Room, Phone Booth, and American Gun. We haven’t even touched his long body of work on television, including The Shield, The Twilight Zone (the show sucked, but his narration and presence as host were on-point), E.R., or American Dad.
Since winning the Oscar for his haunting, stunning turn as the brutal dictator Idi Amin, Whitaker has been a formidable supporting performer in movies like Southpaw and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He has also had some success as a director, although it’s been a long time since he worked behind the camera.
The Last King of Scotland is not a pleasant or glossy movie. It strives to create a nuanced, layered depiction of Amin, using a fictional story as the backdrop. This is sometimes the best way to do something that could technically qualify as a biopic. The story is important, but it is far more important that we take away a multifaceted impression of Idi Amin. At the end of the day, of course, we should view this man as we would any monster. However, to simply present him as one would be a waste of a narrative opportunity. It would also be a waste of Forest Whitaker, who brings his numerous gifts to one of the most challenging roles any actor could take on. I’m still amazed that Whitaker won the Oscar, particularly since he was going against legends like Peter O’Toole. In the end, I’m glad he won. His Idi Amin is the best performance of that given year, a rare occasion in which the Oscars line up with something I actually feel. The Oscar is also a summation of sorts of Whitaker’s versatility, and for the fact that he is versatile within that range.
Yet even with that Oscar, I don’t think Forest Whitaker’s contributions to art have been fully appreciated.
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