Zeinab Badawi speaks to Forest Whitaker. How far is he concerned that his portrayal of Idi Amin played into racist stereotypes of Africans and their continent?
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Now on BBC News, it's HARDtalk.
Welcome to HARDtalk with me, Zeinab Badawi, from the World
Economic Forum in Davos.
My guest is humanitarian, activist and Hollywood
actor Forest Whitaker.
He's probably best known for his Oscar-winning role ten years
ago as the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland,
and he's remained deeply involved with Uganda through his work
with the Whitaker Peace Development Initiative,
which helps young people living in communities affected by violence
across several continents.
He's also a special envoy for UNESCO and a member
of the UN's advocacy group on sustainable development goals.
But can celebrity activists like him be real agents for change?
Forest Whitaker, welcome to HARDtalk.
It's great to be here with you.
Now, in your acting career, you've been a very,
very versatile actor.
Mainstream, popular films like Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,
and also The Great Debaters, back in 2007, about black students
striving for equality.
Do you like to act in any genre of films?
I'm trying to continue to grow as a person,
so each character is an opportunity for me to understand
a different part of myself, a different part of humanity.
So what happens is that I don't necessarily repeat the same roles
because I'm continuing to search, to understand and deepen who I am
as a person and an artist.
Do you believe that film can really create a dialogue
and help bring about change?
Because you're a very committed social activist.
For instance, you've been in rather gritty roles.
You played a gay character in Pret-a-Porter.
And also, in two of your films as Director, which are
Waiting To Exhale and Hope Floats, you dealt with issues such
as divorce, abandonment, adultery, that kind of thing.
I mean, I think that we hope the film can lend a lens or a mirror
to our inner thoughts and our inner understandings.
I think that I've done a number of films...
We have another production company and we do produce films.
A lot of those films are with first-time film-makers.
Unique, individual voices.
We did one a few years ago called Fruitvale Station,
with Ryan Coogler, that Nina Yang did with me.
And that film was dealing with Oscar Grant and his being
murdered in the BART station in San Francisco.
Whereas I've done comedies where I've introduced,
like Linda Mendoza, she did something called Chasing Papi.
And that was her first film but, you know, just supporting these
new voices and supporting her as a film-maker and as
a female film-maker.
But do you think that your films can kind of act as a catalyst
to generate debate and perhaps to bring about change in mindsets?
Certainly, I think that as the film I was talking about was put out
at the conclusion of the trials that were going on with Trayvon Martin.
Um, the films that we did before, we did a film on Vietnamese refugees
that created a new dialogue with the director, Tim Linh Bui,
about what had happened when they were here in
the United States during that time.
I think a lot of the films that even as an artist,
as an actor let you delve into the dialogue of race
and understanding and the movement, or the growth of the entire country.
I think it was just a dialogue about what had happened
during the country's time and what it was reaching for.
The sort of sense of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness.
You won numerous accolades, awards, including Oscar for Best Actor
for your portrayal as Idi Amin, the Ugandan dictator,
in The last King of Scotland.
Is that a film you're proud of?
Yes, I gained a lot from that film as an artist and as a person.
Er, I had to do so much research to try to understand this
I had never been to the African continent up until that point.
That was an opening for me.
And I had been charged with the notion that
I was from there, so I needed to understand what it
felt like in some ways to actually be African,
not African-American, you know?
And that was a challenge.
The challenge of understanding the historical relevance
of what was going on with him during that time and all
the countries in that region, you know, and the attacks that
were going on, the colonialism.
All these things were opportunities for me to continue to grow.
I had to learn a new language.
I was working on Swahili, so I could actually speak
in the film in that language and be able to improvise a little
bit in the language.
I had to learn musical instruments because that was one of his things.
It was like a party in a box, this accordion that he was playing,
it allowed him to create a party wherever he wanted.
It was certain qualities of his personality that were interesting.
Very taxing as well, you had to put on 50lb, didn't you,
to take the role on, something like that?
You must have been eating a lot, Forest, in the run-up to that!
Yeah, well, during that time, I just kept eating.
So as an African-American going to the continent
of Africa for the first time, what did you feel like
when you first landed in Africa?
Did you feel like, a sense that you'd come home?
Did you have any kind of affinity?
Because I acquired a deeper feeling of that the more I was opening
myself to understanding things.
At first, you get a general feeling of the air,
the place and the people.
They were very generous, the Ugandans were very
generous to me that I met.
But then something happens as you start to eat the food,
you rest on the side of a road, riding motorcycles
through the streets.
I tried to experience as much as I could to help me understand how
to project this in a truthful way.
You were quoted in the New York Magazine in 2006 saying -
Idi Amin was responsible for major atrocities, but he also
reshaped opportunities for people in his country.
He was a person who was colonised and he stood up to colonialism.
And he was demonised for many things, but partly for standing up.
Sounds like you perhaps somewhat admired him?
I didn't admire the atrocities that he did, as far as the many deaths.
Although if you examine the historical reference,
you'll see that the person behind him committed more murders
and the person before him has committed more murders.
It doesn't make his right, it's just curious as to why he was so focused
on during that time.
I think certainly, he was trying to bring a sort
of sense of nationalism.
He kicked out the West, which was unusual for someone
who was from the continent.
It's not a question of, like, trying to act like he's
some form of a hero, it's a question of just, like,
looking at the references and seeing the different things that affected
the people and changed their sense of identity.
And he did, like, have some influence
on changing their identity.
You said in general about empathising with characters
that once you understand the patterns that shape a person,
how can you not find sympathy?
Does that apply to somebody like Idi Amin who,
as you say, committed, and we know, many atrocities?
I think in some ways, I guess very strongly.
Because at first, you just look at what is projected of him
and you have to try to go to the source of -
what would make him become that?
What would make him commit 300,000 murders?
What would allow him to do some of the atrocities that occurred?
You're asking for understanding, though, for somebody
who was a very brutal dictator.
I'm not asking for understanding for him, I'm looking
for humanity in who he is.
I think we have to look at humanity.
We have to be able to stand in each other's shoes and understand
that the way we behave is based on the different structures
or things that happened to us as we grew up in our lives.
And so my philosophy as an artist is, I look at every character
and I try to understand them, I go to their core.
Pulling away the different experiences of their lives.
Pulling away the different pains and understandings,
until I get to the bottom.
And at the bottom of it, I believe we are all connected in some way.
At the bottom, there's just a flame that is connected to everybody.
And then you put those things back up on top of that character,
that person, and that forms him.
And then you can see a person who did atrocities,
who did horrible things, but you do try to go
The perceptions that that film raised about Africa -
I want to tell you what a black British film critic, Vanessa
Walters, wrote in the Guardian.
She said, "The fact that Amin killed many of his people,
does that give carte blanche to the film-makers to play
to some of the worst stereotypes of corrupt,
murderous, incompetent and ridiculous black leaders?
Africa is presented as a place of violence
and superstition, ruled by fear."
How far do you believe that's true and, if so, does it worry you?
I mean, I think that certainly because the continent is really
diverse and so there's all different types of stories and many of those
stories need to be told, you know, from different ways of life,
different types of characters who make up that continent.
But I think that if you look at, historically, this particular
character and what he did in his life and the things that
happened, then you have to, like, deal with the truth of what that is.
It doesn't mean...
Because I think the movie was somewhat about colonialisation
and what colonisation did, and I think that was looking at,
painting that picture that he was created.
He was a soldier who was famous for fighting with the Mau Maus,
and they took him.
He wasn't choosing to be a President.
They took him and said, here's this opportunity,
we'd like you to become President.
We will use you as a puppet to deal with our needs.
But unfortunately for them, he chose not to take that path.
OK, but doesn't it play to the negative stereotypes
of Africa, which is the point that Vanessa Walters is making,
do you accept that there's soem truth in that?
I can say that...
Does it play into that?
I think that in this particular story, I think it's trying to stay
pretty true to what was occurring during that time.
The things you were talking about.
When you were referencing Idi Amin, you said all kinds of atrocities.
You had no sympathy for him, you were discussing all these things
and asking me how I could have any feeling about him.
That was your point of view.
Yeah, that was.
You know, so I'm saying that, yes, that that may exist.
And I think, yes, more stories need to be told, you know,
that deal with the African continent that show the uplifting stories,
that show the lives, the joys and all the things like that.
That's one of many stories.
It's just one of many stories.
What does the film tell us about Hollywood?
Because the story is related through the eyes of a young Scottish
doctor who goes to Uganda.
I tell you what the veteran film producer Joe Pichirallo says,
in general: "The bottom line is that the major studios want
assurances that film projects have the potential to attract
a significant white audience."
So they've got to go through the eyes of a white doctor.
I mean, I think that has been the case at different times and it
continues to be that way at certain times.
In the case of that, it was based on a book, you know,
and so it was following that particular book.
As a general point, though, do you think it's valid?
As a general point.
At times, it's been extremely valid.
I think it continues to be.
I mean, we're looking at a system where 30% of the leading
characters in films, minorities, are people of colour.
But in reality, it's 40% of our population is that.
So there's a disparity.
And so there's this question of economy, there's a question
of why you make which film you make.
And sometimes, I think the studios themselves have made this assumption
that in order to make a film be successful, in order to make
the monies that they need to make, they needed
to have a white protagonist.
I mean, I'll put to you some figures.
In 90 years of the history of the Academy Awards,
under 15 men and women of colour have received Oscars
for Best Actors.
And as you know, in 2015-2016, there were no nominations for black
or non-white actors, and that made directors
like Spike Lee and other people boycott the Oscars.
Have you received short shrift in Hollywood, do you think,
as a result of your colour, or are you just one of the success
stories who's swum against the tide?
I think in the first part of your statement,
I think certainly, there are disparities that have happened
with artists who have not been recognised for their work at times.
You know, and I think it's still being worked on.
It's even being worked on by the Academy to make it more
inclusive, to make more people of colour, different people
from different cultural backgrounds and different
languages come together.
For myself, it's difficult because I had a particular reason
why I was becoming an artist.
At the time when I was becoming an artist, I was using it
as a window for me to be able to understand humanity in some way.
So even if I had roles, it might not make me satisfied.
I may be doing something that everyone would laud
and would say was great, but maybe it didn't create a great
individual journey for me.
Now, I've had the opportunity to have really, really interesting
journeys and different characters and stuff.
Perhaps atypical at times, and becoming more typical,
you know what I mean?
But I want to ask you about that because one role that you did take
was, you played a cop, a policeman, in the TV
series The Shield.
And you grew up, you were born in Texas, but you moved to LA
when you were four years of age and you lived in a fairly
segregated neighbourhood, and you talked about how you saw
acts of police brutality, even against members
of your own family and friends and so on and so forth.
So then how did you feel about acting the role of a policeman?
Again, I think each time, it's an opportunity to try to, like,
understand more about that situation, understand
more about myself, understand more about people.
So if I'm playing a police officer, I get the opportunity
to walk in their shoes, to try to understand their purview
and understand that particular person individually.
I can't say it's difficult to play a police officer.
Maybe I have certain reactions to police officers personally
because of experiences that I've had.
Maybe it put a charge inside of me at times because of things I've seen
or because of the way I was brought up, you know.
That's still things that I'm working on as a human being.
But playing the character was another opportunity
to try to understand humanity.
And for me, that is the goal, that's the goal.
But I mean, we've seen obviously the Black Lives Matter campaign
and even big stars like you are...
For instance, I'm thinking of the case when in 2013,
you walked into a New York delhi and you were wrongly
accused of shoplifting...
Yeah, stopped and frisked.
Yes, you were stopped and frisked.
I mean, what does that tell us about race in America today?
I mean, certainly, I mean, we're looking at all the...
Talking about Black Lives Matter, talking about what sort of came out
of as statements about, against what was happening
inside many different communities, where people of colour
were being harmed or hurt by state officials or police,
you know what I mean?
And the profiling that goes on with them, in Stop-and-Frisk
movement and stuff, it makes a statement about, you know,
the nation, how far we still need to go.
I mean, certainly, I think a young black teenager is, like,
20 times more likely to be killed than his white counterpart.
So certainly, we have things that we need to be
working on, you know?
You campaigned for Barack Obama in his presidential bid
and you said back in 2008, "I can feel a tide of
change in the country."
Did it come?
I think that there is still a tide of change.
I mean, to try to act like we haven't had great progress
as a nation and culturally is not true.
I mean, we're coming from a situation where originally,
we came to the nation as slaves.
Now, the head of our country, the President, President Obama,
it's a long journey, so to act as if we haven't
But he himself said...
It doesn't mean we don't have places to go.
Look, I think Martin Luther King was saying we're owed...
It's a promissory note that's been given to us.
That promissory note was for life, liberty and happiness.
We have not achieved that, so until we truly achieve that,
then we haven't become the America that we say we want to be.
Living up to our Constitution or our Declaration of Independence,
we're not living in that.
But he didn't do very well on race, did he?
I mean, even in his final speech as President, Barack Obama
said: "After my election, there was talk of a
Such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic
for race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society."
The fact that there was this first African-American President didn't
really change things on the ground, did it?
And in that sense, it failed.
No, I don't think he failed in that respect.
I think he moved forward a conversation, moved
forward an understanding.
It changes the psyche of the nation and the psyche of,
in some ways, the world.
Like I say, we're working on making those things stronger.
You know what I mean?
But to act like he hasn't succeeded and to act like that doesn't exist
and to act like there isn't some success is incorrect
because it's the truth.
So Donald Trump, of course, in the White House and 88%
of African-Americans who voted in the presidential election voted
for Hillary Clinton.
Only 8% of them voted for Donald Trump.
Does that worry you, then, that he's not going to be
a President for all Americans, in particular African Americans?
Well, that certainly remains to be seen.
I'm hopeful that he's going to be a President in the end
who represents all the constituency, who represents the people
of all cultures, races, of sexual preference, of immigrants.
Are you optimistic about that?
I can't be optimistic, based on some of the statements
that have been made.
Which statements worry you in particular?
Well, there's a lot of statements, you know what I mean!
There are loads, yeah!
And so there's concerns, but then we have to come
to the table and try to find some common ground and hopefully
push forward the agenda.
It doesn't look good, though, does it?
I mean, he's taken a swipe at what he's called
We saw the attack he made on Meryl Streep after she criticised
him at the Golden Globe Awards.
So he doesn't like 'liberal Hollywood'.
That's got to include you, doesn't it?
I mean, it won't stop me from doing the work in the manner in which I've
been doing it for years and continuing to try
to strive forward.
You know, I'm hopeful that we will be able
to be a nation that's, you know, united.
Right now, we've been a nation that's been polarised.
And before that, we had a lot of questions.
And I think there's a lot of people who are doubting that
we're gonna move foward, you know, in a positive way, but we
have to try to push it forward.
And if it doesn't happen, then the people themselves have
to stand up and speak.
If it doesn't happen, if they're not being respected,
not being treated well, their needs are not being met,
then they have to stand up - whether that's in protest movements,
marches, however - to make their voices be heard.
What is more important to you, your work as an actor
or as a humanitarian activist?
I mean, my work as a, you know, humanitarian work
is particularly important to me.
I think at the kernel of it, I'm always trying and striving
to understand humanity and make sure that I see myself in others.
And if I see myself in someone else and they're struggling
and suffering, then I'd like to take up that mantle to try to heal that.
Your Peace % Development Initiative works a great deal with young people
affected by violence.
In particular, young people, children who were forced to work,
to fight as child soldiers - which, of course, we've seen
in Uganda, as well as other parts of the world.
Er, I don't address it just by dealing with child soldiers.
I've been working with child soldiers.
There's 250,000 child soldiers in the world, you know.
I started working initially in Uganda with child soldiers.
We started working in the South Sudan on our
Youth Peacemaker Network to deal with peace and reconciliation
and development, and so we've been training youths in that way.
We started first in Jonglei State because we thought the conflict
might happen there.
We wanted to hopefully help stabilise the country if it did.
And it did happen, and that was the place
where the conflicts happened.
But the youths that we have trained have acted as a sort of early
warning system to help each other get to safety.
So that was very powerful and that's what they did.
Developing these countries is such a huge, huge problem.
You can help the young people, but where are the jobs for them?
Even if you get them an education, quality education, there's no
gainful employment for them and so on.
So it must make you feel very frustrated that
despite your huge efforts, you still sometimes see
that there isn't as much change on the ground as you would like.
Um, yes, certainly, I mean...
Look, where you deal with a situation like in South Sudan
where people have been, you know, the civil war's been
going on for a long time, there's 50,000 deaths, there's...
I don't know, 2.9 million people displaced.
A million people displaced.
One million are refugees and two internally displaced,
and the United Nations is saying that five million people don't have
enough food or are in need of humanitarian assistance.
And that's nearly half the population.
Exactly, but are we to not, like, try to move things forward
and help the equation because of those atrocities?
Of course you help...
No, but I'm saying that what we've done is worked with the youth,
training them in that area.
Those youths that went out into the community and trained
others in those areas.
And in our space, you know...
Because as you say, it is a really difficult situation,
but they have managed to be able to help during the situation as
peace builders, as peace mediators.
I mean, one of our youths, like, went to get the army
to move out of a school, in order to bring the
children back inside.
He was able to accomplish that.
One of our youths has been working on policy.
He was accepted as a member of parliament.
A lot of these different things are going on.
There are, like, all these development projects that
they're still doing, even during this time of really
major atrocities and different difficulties that are going on.
Well, a lot of worries about South Sudan, as you say.
You have met President Salva Kiir of South Sudan and also his
erstwhile deputy Riek Machar, who now leads the Sudan People's
Liberation movement in opposition, the main rebel leader.
The rivalry between them is so personal, there are those
who argue that there will be no peace in South Sudan until both men
are no longer on the scene, acting politically.
Um, I don't know.
I think that recently, I think it was in December,
they started a dialogue for reconciliation in the country
and I'm hoping that it will be inclusive, this national dialogue,
and that everyone will be included and they'll be able to move
through it and talk through it.
Otherwise, there are a lot of players who are trying
to people find common ground, to be able to do with the situation.
It's like any other situation of this magnitude.
Can activists like you really be agents for change?
I mean, I think that we all can be agents of change if we,
like, decide to stand up for certain things.
Certainly, like, we've been working in this area.
We have thousands of youths in the Protection Civilian Camp
that we work with - 3,000, I believe, at the moment.
You know, we're about to go into a refugee camp where we'll be
working with about 10,000 people.
So certainly, we're dealing with the situation, building
community learning centres across that state,
eastern equatorial state.
So certain things are happening during this time of difficulty,
during this time of really painful recognitions.
Forest Whitaker, thank you very much indeed for coming on HARDtalk.
Zeinab Badawi speaks to humanitarian activist and actor Forest Whitaker. One role for which he won numerous accolades, including an Oscar for best actor, was his portrayal of the Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. But how far is he concerned that his portrayal of Idi Amin played into racist stereotypes of Africans and their continent?