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Forest Whitaker advocates democracy in Phoenix lecture

Actor/filmmaker Forest Whitaker attends the 2014 Film Independent Spirit Awards at Santa Monica Beach in March. In April, his Delivering Democracy Lecture demonstrated his influence reaches far beyond film.
Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images

On April 22, 2014, Forest Whitaker came to Pilgrim Rest Church as the guest of the first Delivering Democracy Lecture, hosted by the ASU’s Center for the Study of Race & Democracy.

Forest Whitaker is one of those actors, whose face everyone remembers; but few remember his name or the film contributions he has made. The 52-year-old actor has appeared in 105 movies and television episodes. His first appearance was in the cult favorite Fast Times at Ridgewood High. Most remember him from Platoon, Bird, The Crying Game, or his Oscar-winning performance as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland in 2006. As a producer and director, he also reminded the audience of his directorial debut—Waiting to Exhale—filmed in Phoenix in 1995.

But very few know about the past decade Whitaker has devoted to humanitarian efforts. He is founder of the PeaceEarth Foundation; Chair of the International Institute for Peace; UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation; Board member of the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities; Senior Research Scholar at Rutgers University; and received the 2012 UN Correspondents Association Advocate of the Year Award.

Whitaker mesmerized the audience with an erudite, inspirational and humbling recitation about obstacles he has overcome, and how people should become change agents. Whitaker got into college on a football scholarship, but was injured and wound up pursuing music, plays, and, ultimately, film. He acknowledged that stereotypes continue, but that “you just have to walk through them.” He said that everyone has control over his/her own destiny. In light of the challenges people of color are still facing, Whitaker insisted, “You have to stand up for what you believe in and maintain your moral center.”

Pilgrim Rest was “sold out” for Whitaker’s appearance. Bishop Alexis Thomas looked out at the diverse audience, and said “Heaven must look like this.” We can hope that this level of grassroots enthusiasm carries over to the voting booth. In light of the continuing assaults on equal opportunity (whether it is anti-affirmative action decisions, Nevada ranchers who think Blacks were better off as slaves or NBA owners, who think Blacks should earn him millions on the court, but, otherwise, not be seen in public), people of color will have to unify to exert more pressure politically and economically to meet the goal of the rousing hymn the choir sang before Whitaker’s speech “We Shall Overcome.”