Forest Whitaker on Creating Opportunities for Artists of Color: ‘Some of Our Most Profound Stories Remain Untold’

Forest Whitaker International Peace Honors

Opportunity is everything. In life, in business, certainly, in the pursuit of artistic expression, it is the ultimate difference-maker: Who gets a chance, and who makes the most of it?

I’ve been fortunate for the opportunities that have come my way as a creator throughout 40 years in this industry. On set and on stage as an actor, behind the camera, and in the trenches as a filmmaker and producer, I’ve tried to make the most of my chances — while at the same time recognizing that the path for talents of color is and has been unduly fraught. As a result, some of our most instructive, profound, and emotional stories remain untold, which means that audiences’ perspectives on our collective existence remain tragically limited.

This was the endemic reality that my producing partner Nina Yang Bongiovi and I sought to extinguish when we formed our company, Significant Productions, over a decade ago. Our mission statement is simple: Provide opportunity.

When we teamed up with first-time filmmaker Rebecca Hall on a long-overdue adaptation of Nella Larsen’s landmark 1929 novel “Passing,” we saw nothing but opportunity: for world-class actresses like Tessa Thompson and Ruth Negga to craft complex, multidimensional roles too rarely afforded to performers of color; for an accomplished actress to bring a deeply personal story, 13 years in the making, to the screen; and for a Black female author’s essential storytelling to reach the kind of vast audience that would have been thought impossible 100 years ago.

Producing independent films like “Passing” has never been easy, but breaking through the plaque of systemic, decades-held “conventional wisdom” surrounding stories about people of color can easily be its own full-time job — on top of the day-to-day grind of creating film and television. When we backed Ryan Coogler’s deeply personal directorial debut “Fruitvale Station,” let’s just say it wasn’t an obvious calculation for many. To take a risk on an unproven talent fresh out of film school with such a specific story to tell was anathema, but to us, it was clear that this is how we build the future. Nina and I felt that we needed Ryan’s voice in the world, a voice with the power and potential to shift the culture in Hollywood, and by hopeful extension, the world beyond. His impact since speaks for itself, through the scope and global impact of films like “Creed” and “Black Panther” — films that have taken their own mighty swings at breaking through the plaque.

For every filmmaker with whom we’ve worked, from Boots Riley (“Sorry to Bother You”) and Chloé Zhao (“Songs My Brother Taught Me”) to Rick Famuyiwa (“Dope”) and Michael Larnell (“Roxane Roxane”), this is our great ambition. That through opportunity, these brilliant artists can someday grace an even bigger stage and change the world with their talent and perspective.

That was the approach we took with Rebecca, who came to us with “Passing” after having already spent a decade chiseling away at a screenplay adaptation. The film tells the story of two friends who choose to live on separate sides of the color line in 1920s Harlem, and we were initially skeptical of what perspective a white, British actress-turned-director had to offer such a complicated, beguiling, and again, specific story. Little did we know of Rebecca’s family’s own fascinating, equally magnificent and melancholy history with the subject matter.

That history has been well-covered at this point, culminating with an incredibly moving segment on PBS’ acclaimed ancestral scavenger hunt series “Finding Your Roots.” Rebecca, who grew up with the lingering sense of hidden heritage — a grandfather she heard may have been Black — was confronted not only with a truth that she always suspected was so, but the absolutely staggering majesty of that truth and its implications as part of our country’s own history. Moreover, she came to grips with how endangered that truth was, nearly lost forever thanks to the difficult (but, in his view, necessary) choice of her grandfather to “pass” as white during the youth of her mother, renowned opera singer Maria Ewing.

So in the pages of Larsen’s novel, and in its subsequent rendering as cinema, Rebecca has experienced quite a journey. Yes, we knew she had an indelible vision, that she saw this story as something of a lost noir captured in black and white with an unusual aspect ratio, and stars that don’t, by nature of that “conventional wisdom,” command the kind of budget and resources financiers are willing to disburse. Personally, we were energized by that uncompromising attitude toward the material. But more importantly, Rebecca’s story and how it inevitably bled into her vision for “Passing” dovetailed wonderfully with our mission statement. All she needed was the opportunity.

The film and the subsequent digging that unearthed Rebecca’s sub-Saharan African lineage also provided a remarkable grace note for Maria, who passed away earlier this month. Through her daughter’s spirited pursuit of a story that spoke to her very core, Maria was finally able to answer long-lingering questions about her personal truth. “Passing” is a story about rejecting that truth and the toil that self-denial takes on the psyche. How remarkable, then, that it could also serve as a salve for understanding an eclipsed family history, and at the same time perhaps connect with viewers who themselves know something about the betrayal of identity.

The moment in which we currently find ourselves and the awakening that is occurring throughout this industry is rare and exhilarating. A wave of accomplished and disparate works is being unleashed on the audience from a mounting chorus of underserved voices. And the reach is even more pronounced in the streaming era. Thanks to platforms like Netflix, Rebecca’s story — dismissed in some quarters early in the process as too niche or too “art house” — finds itself available in more than 200 million households across the planet. That’s staggering. I remember being on set as an actor in David E. Talbert’s “Jingle Jangle: A Christmas Journey” and thinking how fortunate it was that a global audience could experience this joy. Moments like these are a cause for celebration.

As hard-fought and at times harrowing I’ve found it to be for these kinds of stories to gain purpose out in the world, I’m as optimistic as I have ever been that they will continue to be told. The will is there. The talent is there. It’s incumbent on all of us to make sure the opportunity is there. Opportunity, the chance to be heard, is truly the difference between a light extinguished and one that inspires and penetrates the farthest reaches of space and time. Why else are we here if not in service of that pursuit?

Forest Whitaker is an actor, producer and director. He is the co-founder of Significant Productions along with Nina Yang Bongiovi. In 2007, Whitaker became the fourth African American male to win an Academy Award for Best Actor, following in the footsteps of Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, and Jamie Foxx.

Throughout the month of February, Variety will publish essays from prominent Black artists, artisans and entertainment figures celebrating the impact of Black entertainment and entertainers on the world at large.