POSTED March 7 2012

Forest Whitaker, At Your Service

Forest Whitaker

Adding more fuel to the fire that African-American actors get major roles in films (and win Oscars) when they play subservient characters is the announcement that Forest Whitaker (who won his best actor statuette for inhabiting despot Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland)  is in talks to play the title role in The Butler, director Lee Daniels’ biopic about Eugene Allen, the White House butler who served eight presidents.

When I read this (h/t, New York magazine’s Vulture), my first thought was, ooh, Whitaker has done his best work in biopics (Bird, Last King of Scotland, The Great Debaters, this last an underknown Denzel Washington film in which Whitaker played James Farmer, Sr.). My second thought was, ew, another black actor cast as a servant.

Whitaker is an unusually versatile actor with offbeat physicality and afterbeat timing. (He’s a pretty good director, too, as demonstrated in Waiting to Exhale.) I’ve liked him since Fast Times at Ridgemont High (he was the star football player), in ensemble films such as Phenomenon and as the star of Jim Jarmusch’s Ghost Dog: Way of the Samurai.

Your favorite Whitaker performance? Thoughts about his playing The Butler?


  1. If they were movies set in 2011, I’d say people have a point, but since this Butler project at The Help took place in historical time periods, they would have to cast African Americans or not make the project at all. If the characters were being portrayed in some stereotyped Stepin Fetchin way, I think that people would have a real gripe, but part of me worries that people complain because they want to pretend the past didn’t happen while I think it’s important that people not forget. I was shocked when I was chatting with a thirtysomething film buff who admitted that he had never even heard of the Holocaust until he saw Schindler’s List. The lack of historical knowledge is frightening and while I understand the need and wish for positive African-American images, I think they go overboard sometimes when they want to act as if the past shouldn’t be discussed.

  2. He’s a wonderful actor. The Crying Game, I suppose, remains my favorite of his performances. Regarding The Butler, I assume he has his own particular way of assessing roles to play and thought this would be a good way to spend his professional time, imagination and skill. Possessing an estimated net worth (this is internet-derived information, but doesn’t sound improbable) of US $15 million, I’m not going to worry about Forest Whittaker’s commercial decisions during a period of long-term, crippling, sky-high US unemployment and underemployment. I’d like to think Mr. Whittaker would understand. It sounds like a potentially interesting movie, if it doesn’t get bogged down in too many cliches and excessive improbability. Curtis

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