Forest Whitaker is the fourth African-American male to win an Academy Award for Best Actor. Whitaker won the Academy Award, as well as a Golden Globe and a BAFTA for his performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in the 2006 film The Last King of Scotland.
Whitaker was born on July 15, 1961 in Longview, Texas, to Laura Francis (Smith), a special education teacher, and Forest Steven Whitaker, an insurance salesman. His family moved to South Central Los Angeles in 1965. The athletically-inclined Whitaker initially found his way into college via a football scholarship. Later, however, he transferred to USC where he set his concentration on music and earned two more scholarships training as an operatic tenor. This, in turn, led to another scholarship at Berkeley with a renewed focus on acting and the performing stage.
Whitaker made his film debut at the age of 21 in the teen comedy Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) wherein he played, quite naturally, a footballer. The versatile actor appeared in several acclaimed films throughout the ’80s, including Platoon (1986), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and The Color of Money (1986). In 1988, his turn as musician Charlie Parker in Clint Eastwood’s dark biopic Bird won him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. More and more on-screen projects continued for Whitaker throughout the ’90s and early ’00s with films like Robert Altman’s Ready to Wear (1994), Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (2000) and David Fincher’s Panic Room (2002). He gained experience on TV as well with featured spots on such varied shows as Diff’rent Strokes (1978) and Cagney & Lacey (1981), not to mention the TV-movie Civil War epic North and South (1985) and its sequel.
In the early 1990s, Whitaker widened his horizons to include producing and directing. His multimedia company, Spirit Dance Entertainment, includes film, television and music production. He co-produced the violent gangster film A Rage in Harlem (1991), in which he co-starred with Gregory Hines and Robin Givens. His successful directorial debut was with the soulful Waiting to Exhale (1995), an adaptation of the Terry McMillan novel that starred Whitney Houston and Angela Bassett; and 2004’s First Daughter, a romantic comedy starring Katie Holmes. Whitaker has directed a number of music videos as well, including Houston’s “Exhale (Shoop Shoop).”
Whitaker’s greatest success to date is the 2006 film, The Last King of Scotland. To portray the dictator, Whitaker gained 50 pounds, learned to play the accordion, and immersed himself in research. He read books about Amin, watched news and documentary footage featuring Amin, and spent time in Uganda meeting with Amin’s friends, relatives, generals, and victims; he also learned Swahili and mastered Amin’s East African accent. His performance earned him the 2007 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, making him the fourth African-American actor in history to do so, joining the ranks of Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, and Jamie Foxx. For that same role, he was also recognized with a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, BAFTA Award, and accolades from the New York Film Critics Circle, the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, the National Board of Review, and the Broadcast Film Critics Association among others. He has also received several other honors. In September 2006, the 10th Annual Hollywood Film Festival presented him with its “Hollywood Actor of the Year Award,” He was also honored at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival 2007, receiving the American Riviera Award. Previously, in 2005, the Deauville Festival of American Film paid tribute to him. In 2007, Forest Whitaker won the Cinema for Peace Award 2007.
In 2007, Whitaker played Dr. James Farmer Sr. in The Great Debaters, for which he received an Image Award nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor. In 2013, after languishing in several direct-to-DVD movies such as Freelancers and Pawn, Whitaker has enjoyed a bit of career resurgence, having played the lead role in Lee Daniels’ The Butler, which has become one of his greatest critical and commercial successes to date.
He is married to former model Keisha Whitaker and has three children by her. His younger brothers Kenn Whitaker and Damon Whitaker are both actors as well.
Forest Whitaker, who is a vegetarian, recorded a public service announcement with his daughter, True, promoting vegetarianism on behalf of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). He is also a supporter and public advocate for Hope North, a boarding school and vocational training center in northern Uganda for escaped child soldiers, orphans, and other young victims of the country’s civil war. In politics, Whitaker supported and spoke on behalf of Senator Barack Obama in his 2008 presidential campaign. On April 6, 2009, he was given a chieftaincy title in Imo State, Nigeria. Whitaker, who was named a chief among the Igbo community of Nkwerre, was given the title Nwannedinamba of Nkwerre, which means A Brother in a Foreign Land. In 2010, Whitaker received the Artist Citizen of the World Award (France)
In May 2011, Whitaker co-founded the International Institute for Peace (IIP) at Rutgers University in Newark, New Jersey. Launched during the international Newark Peace Education Summit, IIP’s mission is to develop programs and strategic partnerships to address cutting-edge issues such as increasing citizen security through community-building; the role of women and spiritual and religious leaders in peace-building; the impact of climate change; and the reduction of poverty.
Whitaker was inducted as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation, in a ceremony at UNESCO headquarters on June 21, 2011. As Goodwill Ambassador, Whitaker works with UNESCO to support and develop initiatives that empower youths and keep them from entering or remaining in cycles of violence.