GOLETA, Calif. – Forest Whitaker has a little ritual on the many occasions he has rung in the new year in Santa Barbara. He goes down to the water, sits in the sand with his family, looks out over the ocean and up at the stars, and he reflects on the year that was.
As he transitioned into 2014 last week, there was certainly plenty for the actor to reflect upon. Whether it was giving a SAG-nominated performance in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” appearing in other films like “Black Nativity” and “Out of the Furnace” or producing the critically acclaimed “Fruitvale Station,” Whitaker stretched himself considerably in 2013.
He was therefore a perfect choice for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s 8th annual Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence, which was presented to him at a fundraising dinner in advance of the fest Sunday night.
A number of clips were shown briefly throughout the evening, sort of a capsule version of the extended tribute reels that run for honorees during the festival itself each year. As you look across the product, something smacks you in the face: “Platoon,” “Good Morning, Vietnam,” “Bird,” “Fast Times at Ridgemont High,” “The Crying Game” – this is very much the canon of modern cinema. He has been a consistent force, never failing to impact, soft spoken but a titan. He finally won an Oscar for 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland,” running the table that season with an undeniable virtuoso performance. It seemed the cherry on top of a vibrant career, but much more was, and likely still is, in store.
“Fruitvale Station” star Michael B. Jordan and Whitaker’s “Black Nativity” co-star Angela Bassett attended the black tie affair. Each offered words of appreciation for their shared friend and colleague.
For Jordan, Whitaker unlocked something special in the young actor, who was having difficulty considering how he would portray the late Oscar Grant in Ryan Coogler’s film.
“Forest taught me that you couldn’t worry about that,” he said. “You have to focus on not giving an imitation but on his essence and what he stood for. That changed my entire approach to the project. It meant the world to me. It changed my life, honestly.”
Bassett, meanwhile, took stock of Whitaker’s intangible charisma, noting that “there’s nobody like anybody, but absolutely no one like Forest…I don’t know how he does it other than the fact that he always gives the full measure of his devotion, reaching, touching, striving for every moment’s honesty. Not unlike childbirth, he labors and delivers, characters so complex, so captivating, so sympathetic.”
But for Whitaker, it meant a lot to receive the honor so close to the new year, so close to his frequent ritual.
“Santa Barbara has been a place I have contemplated my dreams and tried to find a way to make them real,” he said. “That’s what cinema does for all of us…It allows us to remember our shared past and inspires us to act on all that’s possible for our shared future.”
The 29th annual Santa Barbara International Film Festival runs Jan. 30 – Feb. 9. Whitaker’s “Butler” co-star Oprah Winfrey will be recognized there next month with the Montecito Award for her work in the film.