Forest Whitaker’s career is a testament to the slow-growth presence of diversity in Hollywood. He was the fourth African American in history to win the Best Actor Oscar, for his performance as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland,” and now he stars as Archbishop Desmond Tutu in “The Forgiven,” the story of Tutu’s role as Chairman of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1995. It opens just a few weeks after the historic box office success of Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther,” in which Whitaker had a supporting role. Coogler began his career with Whitaker in a different kind of supporting role: He produced Coogler’s 2013 debut, “Fruitvale Station.”
“We need to continue to tell stories that are inclusive and allow all voices to be heard,” he said in a phone interview, a few days before “The Forgiven” opened in limited theatrical release. “Hopefully, that will continue and more and more stories will be told, so that people’s fears about whether or not these stories can create financial benefit or not will be pushed aside.”
Whitaker first started working as a producer in the ’90s when he launched his own production company, Spirit Dance Entertainment, where he directed films like “Waiting to Exhale” and supported first-timers such as African-American writer-director Aric Avelino (“American Gun”) and Mexican-American filmmaker Linda Mendoza, who produced her 2003 comedy “Chasing Papi” through Fox. “I was able to get a studio to do that film,” Whitaker said. “We’re trying to support new voices that have something to say about our society.”
That mission has taken on more momentum. Though Whitaker closed Spirit Dance to focus on his acting career in 2005, he launched Significant Prods. in 2013 with “Fruitvale Station.” Other titles supported by the company include Rick Famuyiwa’s Sundance breakouts “Dope,” about an African American teen applying to college, and the hip-hop drama “Roxanne Roxanne,” which Netflix premieres on March 23. He also produced Chinese filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s debut “Songs My Brother Taught Me,” a drama about Native Americans (her followup, “The Rider,” was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award this year).
At the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, Whitaker produced “Sorry to Bother You,” a raucous satire of racial tensions in the corporate workplace that marked the breakthrough debut from former hip-hop artist Boots Riley. “It has this surrealist point of view on the subjects of labor, profiling, and black-white images,” Whitaker said. “So there’s obviously no line that we’re drawing in the sand about the kind of films we can do, other than the fact that we’re attracted to young, first-time filmmakers with a social consciousness.”
Courtesy of Sundance Institute, photo by Doug Emmett
Whitaker’s decision to play Tutu in “The Forgiven” has elicited some backlash in the South African community, where some have complained that the role should have gone to a native performer who looked the part, rather than an American actor using an accent and prosthetics. As it happens, Whitaker thinks they have a point. “I agree,” he said. “I think it would probably do a better service to the film to have somebody who, in this particular case, might be South African or physically different than me.”
Ultimately, he said, he chose to play Tutu to help the project find financing on the basis of his name recognition. “We’d been trying to get it made,” he said. He had met Tutu through his activism with the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative, and the actor’s efforts as a global ambassador for the U.N. The actor was able to reconnect with Tutu while preparing for the role. “I was trying to capture his aura in some ways, the way he exists in the world,” Whitaker said.
He added that while he understands why South African viewers may take issue with the performance, it comes from a sincere place. “I’ve certainly played different nationalities,” he said. “I’ve played Brits, and in ‘The Last King of Scotland,’ I was Ugandan. It all depends on how people perceive it and receive it — or don’t. But certainly the intention of trying to shed light on a subject matter is important for us to examine.”
With the success of “Black Panther,” Whitaker believes financing struggles surrounding projects with people of color might fade. Asked why it took so long to get to this point, he paused.
“What took so long? I think there are a lot of societal issues that people are working through,” he said. “People are judging situations inaccurately, separating themselves from each other. There’s a left and a right, and some of those elements have stopped the ball from moving forward.” He credited Marvel with supporting Coogler’s vision. “Someone made the decision to provide financial backing behind this project, with the right filmmaker, at this time where people are fighting for equality in all areas,” Whitaker said. “It should change the landscape so people recognize that there’s a large audience for these type of diverse films.”
Whitaker watched the 2018 Academy Awards ceremony, when Jordan Peele became the first African American to win the Best Original Screenplay Oscar and Mexican filmmaker Guillermo del Toro won Best Picture and Best Director, with great interest. “I felt there an energy of inclusion there,” he said. “That spirit is really important for dictating what projects are going to be made in the future. But more importantly, it allows people to have different images that they look up to and admire, and for us to create a dialogue that allows us to open the doors to new experiences.”