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Float On 

Forest Whitaker on the ghosts that dog us all

Wednesday, Mar 22 2000
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Photo by Anne Fishbein

Forest Whitaker is talking heatedly about hip-hop. The actor and director best known for a screen persona that is at once affable and introspective, cerebral and gently solicitous, is sitting in a Beverly Hills hotel suite passionately detailing his idea that hip-hop is the latest manifestation of the black American search for a personal and collective history that has been wiped out by slavery. Whitaker believes that while traditions were erased from black collective memory, the yearning to connect to meaningful tradition has remained, like the ache of a limb that has been long amputated; hip-hop, with its language and dress codes and often crude but distinct internal logic, is a reach back not only to Africa, but to Asia and other cultures girded by ancient creation myths. For those and other reasons, hip-hop is the music to which the movie Ghost Dog is set, although it is mournful and elegiac in a way you’d never expect. Then again, Whitaker has spent a career confounding expectations.

“For me, the hip-hop culture has really aboriginal roots,” says Whitaker, who tends to grow more animated the more serious he becomes. “Blacks are reaching for those roots because they’re lacking that space that says, ‘We come from kings.’ They’re trying to get to that. They want to be able to say, ‘We have our ancestry, we can quote our ancestors back and back and back.’ Slavery took away the religion, took away the family, disseminated people. They’re still trying to put themselves back together, you know what I mean?”

Whitaker, 38, relishes a good discussion of wounded but determined spirits — he’s played a few, though none to such hypnotic effect as Ghost Dog, the lead character in Jim Jarmusch’s new film of the same name. Like Whitaker, Ghost Dog is a philosopher and boundary crosser who connects wildly different cultures (in the movie, hip-hop, feudal Japan, small-time Mafia) simply by being the dense character that he is. Unlike Ghost Dog, Whitaker is completely accessible, warm and enthusiastic, visibly nervous talking to the media even at this late stage of celebrityhood. It’s a shopworn phrase in Hollywood reportage, but Whitaker comes off as a regular guy, though he’s also exactly what you’d expect from a man whose modest teddy-bear bulk and downturned eyes are his most impressive physical features. Even at his most menacing in Ghost Dog, Whitaker retains a core sweetness that makes his thoroughly postmodern samurai a study in contradictions.

After building a reputation for lighting characters from within, no matter how small the part or how large the studio releasing the picture — in movies such as The Color of Money, Platoon and Good Morning, Vietnam — he burst into mainstream consciousness in 1988 playing jazz legend Charlie Parker in Bird. The through line in most of Whitaker’s performances, what makes him incandescent but never glaring, is an earnest wonder at the world, and an urgency to set things right in his own inimitable way, to his own drumbeat. This sense of the individual is rare among actors and virtually nonexistent among black actors; Whitaker seems surprised, then humbled by the suggestion that he occupies rare earth indeed. He likes the idea of his characters embracing contradictions, but doesn’t think doing so is artistically heroic. The contradictions are not his, but the world’s.

“Ghost Dog is just a hodgepodge,” says Whitaker. “Look at his office in the movie — it looks Buddhist, but there’s an African god sitting right next to a Japanese one. He wears a uniform to pay homage to the samurai culture, a warrior uniform, and it happens to fit the uniform of the hip-hop zone. You might say he puts tattoos on his arms to pay homage to the brothers in the jailhouse, but most religions use body markings. It’s all from a common source.”

The origins of Ghost Dog are as improbable as its title. Whitaker met Jarmusch by chance in an L.A. camera shop. They recognized a chemistry and decided to do a project together, one that Jarmusch would write with Whitaker in mind. The script evolved from conversations the two had over the course of a year about what form a Jarmusch-directed, Whitaker-headed movie might take. The actor says their discussions — which would go on for three or four hours at a time — centered mainly around spirituality, tribal and aboriginal culture. Jarmusch gave Whitaker the Hagakure, the ancient handbook of samurai, to read. “But I was pretty familiar with that philosophy,” he points out. “I’ve read about samurai since I was about 10 or 11. I’d read [Sun Tzu’s] The Art of War, things like that. I’ve always been attracted to different spiritual disciplines.” Save for one elaborate sword-sheathing move, Ghost Dog’s nimble martial-arts choreography was all Whitaker’s, something else learned in a youth largely spent in the South Bay burg of Torrance and adjacent neighborhoods.

None of this quite explains how the Texas-born, Southern California–reared, nice, relatively unassuming and intellectual-leaning black actor has made it in the business — long-term — without the benefit of broad comedy, leading-man looks or the brooding, black-man-against-the-white-world angst that pigeonholes everybody from Denzel to Don Cheadle. Even when you make it through the pigeonhole, these folks will testify, there are precious few worthwhile projects on the other side. Whitaker is that rare phenomenon, an eccentric who is allowed his eccentricities onscreen, and who is black. He is a character actor who has never been bound by a recurrent character. Can you imagine anyone else who could have given us the guileless Jody in The Crying Game and the tortured, hook-armed father in Smoke?

It must be noted here that, as a director, Whitaker’s feature films thus far have not been similarly complex. Rather the opposite, in fact — Waiting To Exhale and Hope Floats are odes to the middle of the road, not the one less traveled. Whitaker doesn’t bat an eye at the contrast. He smiles. “I always wanted to be an actor so I could find that commonality with people and connect it with everything,” he explains. “I tend to do films that do that, too. It’s just different ways of doing the same thing. Waiting To Exhale is about being able to live your life, believe in yourself, find joy. It’s a movie that’s full of hope. That’s what I want all my films to be about. Maybe,” he continues, “my films as a filmmaker are more true to me than my films as an actor.”

Ironically, while Ghost Dog provides Whitaker with his most deeply eccentric role ever, it also provides him with his most potentially stereotyped. Ghost Dog is, after all, a cold and methodical assassin wielding many guns, hardly groundbreaking territory for a black actor. But he is also the moral center of the movie, quite literally its soul, in the vaunted American film tradition that has produced bloody saviors such as Dirty Harry and Michael Corleone. When it comes to violence, noble-outsider complexity has generally been reserved for white actors, urban pathology reserved for blacks, but Whitaker and Jarmusch have quietly established something new here. Whitaker suggests that in the middle of chaos his samurai must be his own myth, invent himself entirely, in order to keep the ghosts of lost history at bay.

“Here’s a guy who flies, who protects the weak, who lives in a cave,” he muses. “His attraction to the mob is attraction to ritual, but it’s ritual on an epic scale, like The Odyssey or The Iliad, the stories of estranged sons, of high priests.” Another irony among many in the movie is that it is Ghost Dog, not the mobsters, who keeps the sacred trusts and lives most stringently by the old codes; it is a rough fictive analogy to the startling patriotic faith blacks have kept for years in a country that rarely lives up to its own tenets, its own codes of behavior. The intersection of abiding faith and abiding despair is what gives Ghost Dog a special poignancy, and will doubtless shore up Whitaker’s image as an unlikely and enduring iconoclast. Call him a Hollywood hip-hopper who’s never had to worry about keeping it real.

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