Considering his prodigious filmography and armfuls of acting accolades, Forest Whitaker's portrayal of Desmond Tutu in the mesmerizingly tense new thriller The Forgiven may not be the role of a lifetime — yet there is so much of his lifetime in the role.
The film channels Whitaker's long-held admiration for Tutu into another sublime character study (his depiction of former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in 2006's The Last King of Scotland won almost every major acting award, including an Oscar), while exploring themes of reconciliation and peace-building that, inspired by memories of his South Central L.A. upbringing, have propelled the actor's real-life philanthropic work.
“[The Forgiven] grabs ahold of some areas that are real important to me; that mean something deeply to me; that I've dedicated a large portion of my life towards,” he explains in a soothing semi-mumble incongruous with his imposing 6-foot-2-inch frame. “Particularly conflict resolution and development, and how we can offer the tools to help uplift certain societies that are in conflict.”
In between forging a career that spans his 1982 screen debut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High to playing the appropriately sage Zuri in this year's colossally successful Black Panther, Whitaker, 56, established the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative (WPDI), was named a UNESCO Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation, and co-founded the International Institute for Peace.
The WPDI implements peace-building programs in fragile and disadvantaged communities, including current and former war zones, worldwide. In addition to the initiative's current work in South Sudan, Mexico and Uganda, Whitaker's teams are working closely with two L.A. schools, both in neighborhoods where he grew up, to assist teachers and students in developing the tools of conflict resolution. In the wake of a wave of school shootings in the United States, the WPDI's stateside work appears especially pertinent — and urgent.
Inspired by real events during Tutu's chairmanship of South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission in the 1990s, The Forgiven — which as of March 16 will have an expanded theatrical release as well as being on VOD and digital HD — portrays one of the planet's great peacemakers, struggling to stay true to his convictions in the face of shadowy old-regime alliances, nauseatingly dark secrets and deeply ingrained bigotry.
At the film's heart is the verbal and psychological sparring between bespectacled, gray-haired archbishop and activist Tutu, and a maliciously brilliant, outwardly unrepentant former death-squad assassin — portrayed with chest-tightening conviction by Eric Bana (Munich, Troy). The latter is seeking clemency in return for details of state-sponsored extrajudicial killings under South Africa's recently deposed, racist administration.
While the film includes scenes of savage behind-bars beatings and chaotic street riots, its most riveting minutes are Tutu and the mustachioed, manacled murderer sitting across from each other in the bowels of a brutal maximum-security prison as each attempts, in contrasting fashion, to unlock and skew the other's moral compass.
“I think the thing the movie does is, it tests that core of whether or not [Tutu] could still love while disagreeing, while saying what you've done is wrong, while acknowledging that you need to be here [in prison] because of what you've done,” Whitaker says with characteristic thoughtfulness. “He's still searching for that capacity to love and forgive.”
The Forgiven's two hours flash by thanks to its perpetual peeling back of increasingly nuanced central characters and almost endless put-yourself-in-their-place ethical dilemmas. It unfolds in a murky chasm between the cleansing purity of forgiveness and the quick-fix lust for revenge, weighing accountability for unspeakable sins during South Africa's decades of institutionalized racial segregation against the compromises required for even the hope of a harmonious future.
“Part of [its message] is that there is no one that is not redeemable,” Whitaker says. “And I think it's not a question of not doubting your beliefs — it's a question of continuing to live by them.”
Some of Whitaker's most celebrated performances — including in The Last King of Scotland and as a mob hit man in 1999's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai — have been marked by his mining at least crumbs of humanity from apparently incorrigible characters. But the challenges of depicting Tutu — someone almost synonymous with overt humanity and humility — were very different.
“I was hopeful that I would be able to capture the spirit of the man. I wasn't sure that I would be able to fulfill all the requirements that I normally would make of myself in portraying a real person,” Whitaker explains. “I was able to see not just the loving, forgiving father who he is but also the passionate, aggressive activist who, even in his later years … still continues to push forward.”
Whitaker's grasp and transmission of Tutu's seemingly unlikely combination of steely resolve and giggly humor in the face of the grimmest of circumstances swiftly eclipse his being some nine inches taller and considerably heavier than the now-retired clergyman. Appearing mostly in Tutu's signature purple cassock and clerical collar, and nailing his distinctively shrill laugh, Whitaker unwaveringly inhabits his study. Just as he immersed himself in all things Amin before his career-changing turn as the Ugandan strongman (even learning to speak Swahili and mastering the accordion), he was similarly scrupulous in attempting to absorb Tutu, inside and out.
“Going to his church to see what that felt like; to understand what that meant in his life,” Whitaker recalls. “In the [South African] neighborhoods, into the communities, trying to understand his speech pattern, his humor. … A complicated man that I start to try to understand and to try to deal with.”
Whitaker already had some familiarity with South Africa, where, while shooting 2013 crime movie Zulu, he also received conflict-resolution and mediation training from South African poet and intellectual Brian Williams, the WPDI's peace-building specialist.
In contrast to playing Amin, who died in 2003, in The Forgiven Whitaker plays someone who is not only still alive but is a revered international figure whom he has actually met on a number of occasions.
“You have a deep responsibility to a living individual,” Whitaker says. “It involves showing the dignity of their life … the complexities and the truth of their existence. And I think that it's, not a burden, but it's definitely something that I think about.”
“If [Tutu] felt that there was a problem with humanity
For all of their physical contrasts, Whitaker and Tutu have much in common, and the actor expresses a desire to become more like his Forgiven character offscreen, too. Both are committed activists who, while speaking out on a number of issues (Whitaker also has championed vegetarianism and supported diverse charities and foundations), place special focus on striving toward conflict resolution and peace.
“If [Tutu] felt that there was a problem with humanity, he would be willing to stand up for that,” Whitaker notes. “I think that was something that I try to do. I'm not sure I have stood up as strongly as I should at all times.”
A famously reluctant and humble star, Whitaker is equally modest about his philanthropic achievements. While many celebrities lend their name to worthy causes, his humanitarian endeavors are unusually hands-on, high-profile and highbrow.
In 2011, Whitaker was designated a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation, and that same year he co-founded the International Institute for Peace at New Jersey's Rutgers University, which he still chairs. After creating the WPDI in 2012, he was made a Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation by UNESCO in 2014
“He knows what's happening day in, day out,” says Monya Kian, domestic program director at the WPDI. “He is really the one who created the vision behind all of our programs. … He's really the force of inspiration, truly, for what we do.”
With his special education teacher mother and insurance salesman father, Whitaker moved from Texas to Carson at age 4. Growing up in what was then known as South Central — during the last days of the civil rights movement, the beginnings of the area's gang culture and the Vietnam War — had an enormous impact on his relentless passion for peace.
“The Black Panthers had an office around the corner from my house, and I used to get picked up by them each day and they would offer to bring me to their breakfast program,” he recalls. “One day, when I went to their office … it had been blown up, shot up. And this really affected me.”
He also recalls a cousin who was “like my brother” returning from service in Vietnam as “a different person.” Because of threats from gangs, Whitaker had to be moved from Compton's Walton Middle School to Daniel Webster Middle School, an hour distant on L.A.'s Westside, before enrolling at Palisades Charter High School.
Having earned a football scholarship to Cal Poly Pomona, Whitaker changed his major to music, following an injury. He was accepted to USC's Music Conservatory to study opera, subsequently entering its Drama Conservatory and graduating with a bachelor's degree in acting in 1982. He has since racked up a résumé characterized by working with well-regarded directors and actors, including Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money, Oliver Stone's Platoon, the Clint Eastwood–directed Bird and, to huge critical acclaim, 2013's The Butler. Since the 1990s, he also has worked behind the camera, including directing 1995's Waiting to Exhale and, three years later, Hope Floats.
While researching his Last King of Scotland role, he started working with a Ugandan orphanage that was rehabilitating former child soldiers. His relationship with UNESCO began when the United Nations asked him to speak with them about his work there — experiences that were the impetus for his creating the Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative.
Both the stateside schools currently working with the WPDI are in neighborhoods with special significance to Whitaker: Andrew Carnegie Middle School in Carson, where he was raised; and Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary School in Compton, the city where he attended elementary school and part of junior high.
The WPDI has designed a Conflict Resolution Education Program specifically for elementary school students involved in the Turnaround Arts Initiative — a signature program of the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, of which Whitaker is a member. At MLK Jr. Elementary, this has involved the WPDI's Kian visiting on a weekly basis to talk with students about ways of dealing with conflict, as well as considerable interaction with Whitaker himself, who today lives in the Hollywood Hills.
Whitaker has visited the campus several times, says Jennifer Carreras, music instructor at MLK Jr. Elementary. “He did a schoolwide assembly. … [And] we also shot a music video with him — my students were playing instruments and he was singing.”
But the WPDI's domestic focus is on middle schools — “those years are very formative,” Kian says. Its three-year pilot Domestic Harmonizer Program at Carnegie Middle School, launched in 2016, is intended to be replicated in numerous such institutions, initially in L.A. and elsewhere in Southern California.
“By providing students with conflict-resolution tools, students can transform their lives and communities,” says Melissa A. Burke, assistant principal at Carnegie Middle School. “The program is rich with vocabulary, strategies, exercises and content to assist students in becoming active listeners and problem solvers. Students learn to deconstruct conflicts, de-personalize disagreements, understand others' points of view and create positive solutions.”
Whitaker visited Carnegie Middle School for the Domestic Harmonizer Program's kickoff assembly and has participated in staff trainings there since.
“Our goal is to position [teachers] so that they're fluent in the curriculum,” Kian says. “So that they can sustain the program on their own, without us.”
Not only is Carson Whitaker's old stomping ground, but its middle school program is implemented in close collaboration with the city's California State University, Dominguez Hills (CSUDH), from which his sister graduated and he “used to walk the fields” as a kid. The program takes a “whole-school” approach, across every grade, in which its conflict resolution syllabus is embedded within Carnegie's existing core curriculum.
Headline-making spasms of campus violence across the United States, including last month's mass shooting at a Florida high school, only underline the importance of the WPDI's domestic efforts.
“Some of [our youth] are struggling for identity and struggling for their place and a sense of self and community,” Whitaker says. “In isolation [they] start to formulate sort of plans around how they would like to structure their own source of power; their own places where they think they need to seek revenge or to damage in order to bring some form of attention to themselves or to the situation.”
The WPDI aims to address, and to impart the techniques to peacefully resolve, core issues that can, in rare and extreme cases, culminate in tragedy.
“The peer mediation component, launched in January 2018, helps students to handle disagreements before they become major conflicts,” Burke says. “WPDI and CSUDH delivered a 12-hour peer mediation training to students in the program, and provide monthly refresher training to support the students in the program.”
“Take an example like bullying,” Kian says. “This … can be addressed immediately if teachers and students and parents have the resources to deal with it. So our hope with this program is to prevent conflict when it happens, manage it when it happens, and then resolve it peacefully.”
The themes of compassion and reconciliation that permeate The Forgiven are similarly pervasive in the WPDI's real-world education programs — evasive, sometimes almost intangible concepts relevant equally in the courtrooms and prisons of a distant continent a quarter-century ago and in L.A.'s contemporary schools and neighborhoods.
“The area where we really, truly delve into the concept of reconciliation [and] forgiveness is the restorative justice theme we carry in the eighth grade,” Kian explains. “In that component we really try to convey to the students how powerful forgiveness can be, not only in their day-to-day lives but also in what happened in South Africa, which is something that we cover in one of our units.”
It says much about Forest Whitaker that, days after our formal interview, he twice called back to further discuss how concepts of universal love, forgiveness and human solidarity infuse the person and activism of Desmond Tutu, which he strove to convey in The Forgiven, as well as his own philosophy and philanthropy.
“First, there has to be some form of acknowledgement. And then what can follow a lot of times will be some form of reparation,” he concludes. “Then you move into sort of a third space of maybe acceptance or co-existence and then, ultimately … forgiveness and, possibly, love.”