To describe Forest Whitaker as a Hollywood star would be to inflict a serious injustice upon the man. To be sure, his IMDB page lists an impressive body of work that covers all and out commercial successes to small independent labour of love type projects; however, on a night of conversation at SOAS University of London with Baroness Valerie Amos you get the keen sense that, in his view, all of this pales in comparison to his true calling – helping people through his development work around the globe.
He founded the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative, a grass-roots programme which empowers young people in communities affected by violence to become forces for peace and voices for change, in 2012 – but its inception can arguably be traced back to his childhood days in Los Angeles, growing up around the corner from the offices of the Black Panthers:
He became more acutely aware of the horror of war and the plight of child soldiers on the set of one of his best-known films The Last King of Scotland, where he stunned audiences with his terrifying portrayal of Ugandan President and former War-General Idi Amin.
Forest won an Oscar for that performance; he spoke to Valerie about his screen methodology and how he came to embody the character:
And also about how he “scared the hell” out of the supporting cast:
Celebrities getting involved with philanthropic work is certainly not a new phenomenon. But where Forest Whitaker differs from your normal A-list UNICEF celebrity ambassador is the sheer amount of time and effort he dedicates to his organisation, often working for weeks at a time on the ground on projects in South Sudan, Mexico and across the United States.
Asked about how his initiative develops effective models for communities to halt the cycle of violence that young people are often drawn into, he said:
On a night of serious and sobering discussion there were also moments of levity. One such moment involved an audience member unable to constrain his excitement, asking about his role in the highly-anticipated Marvel movie Black Panther, set to hit screens in 2018. Forest, a consummate professional, gave very little away.
SOAS’s Director Valerie Amos perhaps summed it up best when asked to describe what Forest brings to the table in terms of his development work: “commitment, understanding, compassion and an enormous amount of humanity”. The audiences’ standing ovation reception at the event close would appear to give much weight to that statement.
You can watch the entire event on our YouTube channel.