American actor Forest Whitaker turns 55 today. Shuib Taib looks at his body of work on the big screen

1. BIRD (1988)

Forest Whitaker is the first actor to portray a screen version of Charlie “Bird” Parker. This film chronicles the troubled life and career of the famous jazz musician. Although he wasn’t nominated for a Best Actor award at the Oscars, Whitaker won in the same category at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and received a Golden Globe nomination as well. The film also won the prestigious Grand Prix title at the Belgian Film Critics Association and an Oscar for Best Sound.

2. PHENOMENON (1996)

Whitaker plays Nate Pope in this movie about an ordinary man (John Travolta) who sees a bright light descend from the sky and discovers he now has super-intelligence and telekinesis. Travolta and Whitaker both won a Blockbuster Entertainment Award for their performances in 1997. Whitaker also received an Image Award and the film received a nomination for a Saturn Award.

3. PANIC ROOM (2002)

A thriller starring Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart as a mother and daughter whose new home is invaded by burglars, played by Forest Whitaker, Jared Leto and Dwight Yoakam. Whitaker’s character was initially imagined by screenwriter David Koepp as an unpleasant white-collar compulsive gambler.

In Koepp’s words: “Someone like Humphrey Bogart in one of his less pleasant roles.” He told Whitaker to watch Key Largo (1948) and emulate Bogart’s character. Whitaker was nominated for a Black Reel Award for Best Supporting Actor.

4. PHONE BOOTH (2002)

Whitaker plays Captain Ramey in this thriller about a slick New York publicist who picks up a ringing receiver in a phone booth and is told that if he hangs up, he’ll be killed. The little red light from a laser rifle sight is proof that the caller isn’t kidding. Whitaker was nominated for a Black Reel Award for Best Supporting Actor and for a NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture.

5. AMERICAN GUN (2005)

American Gun consists of three stories dealing with the results of gun use: An inner city school principal (Whitaker), a single mother (Marcia Gay Harden) and an “A” student (Linda Cardellini) who works at her family’s gun shop. At the 2007 Independent Spirit Awards, Whitaker was nominated for Best Male Lead.


In this Icelandic-American noir-inspired drama thriller, Whitaker plays Abe Holt, an insurance adjustor who has to deal with a married couple over the wife’s dead brother’s million-dollar insurance policy. The movie won the Critics Award for Best Director at the Cognac Festival du Film Policier 2006 and Goteborg Film Festival 2006.

7. MARY (2005)

Following the shooting of a film on the life of Jesus titled This Is My Blood, Marie Palesi (Juliette Binoche), the actress who plays Mary Magdalene takes refuge in Jerusalem in search of the truth behind the story. Whitaker plays TV journalist Ted Younger, who presents a programme about the life of Jesus. The film premiered at the 2005 Venice Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Prize as well as three smaller awards.


The movie is based on the events of the brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin’s (Whitaker) regime as seen by his personal physician during the 1970s. Arguably his most successful movie by far, Whitaker won Best Actor at several awards events, including the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild Awards, African-American Film Critics Association Award, Bafta Award, BET Award, Black Reel Award, Boston Society of Film Critics Award and was named Actor of the Year 2006 during the Hollywood Film Awards.


Whitaker plays James L. Farmer Sr in this drama based on the true story of Melvin B. Tolson, a professor at Wiley College Texas. In 1935, he inspired students to form the school’s first debate team, which went on to challenge Harvard in the national championship. Whitaker was nominated for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture at the Image Awards.

10. THE BUTLER (2013)

Loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, the film stars Whitaker as Cecil Gaines, an African-American who is a witness to notable political and social events of the 20th century during his 34-year tenure as a White House butler. Whitaker won Best Actor at the NAACP Image Awards. He was nominated for Best Actor at the Screen Actors Guild Awards and the Satellite Awards.