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Forest Steven WhitakerForest Steven Whitaker was born July 15, 1961 in Longview, Texas.   He was awarded The NAACP Chairman’s Award at the 45th NAACP Image Awards this past Saturday.  His acceptance speech can be seen here.–forest-whitaker-s-amazing-speech.html.

Whitaker moved to Carson, California when he was four. He attended Cal Poly Pomona on a football scholarship, but due to a debilitating back injury he changed his major to music. He was accepted to the Music Conservatory at the University of Southern California to study opera as a tenor and subsequently was accepted into the University’s Drama Conservatory.  He graduated from USC in 1982.

In 1988, Whitaker had his first lead role starring as musician Charlie Parker in the Clint Eastwood directed film, Bird. To prepare himself for the part, he sequestered himself in a loft with only a bed, a couch, and a saxophone having taken alto sax lessons. His performance earned him the Best Actor award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination.

Whitaker starred as General Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, which earned him positive reviews by critics as well as multiple awards and honors. To portray the dictator, Whitaker gained 50 pounds, learned to play the accordion, and immersed himself in research.  He read books about Amin, watched news and documentary footage, and spent time in Uganda meeting with Amin’s friends, relatives, generals, and victims; he also learned Swahili and mastered Amin’s East African accent.  His performance earned him the 2007 Academy Award for Best Actor in a Leading Role, making him the fourth African-American actor in history to do so, joining the ranks of Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, and Jamie Foxx. For that same role, he was also recognized with a Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild Award, and the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Award.

Whitaker branched out into producing and directing in the 1990s. In 1995, he directed his first feature, Waiting to Exhale.  Whitaker was one of the producers of the film, Fruitvale Station, which won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for U.S. dramatic film at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival.

He is also a supporter and public advocate for Hope North, a boarding school and vocational training center in northern Uganda for escaped child soldiers, orphans, and other young victims of the country’s civil war. Whitaker was inducted as a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation in a ceremony at UNESCO headquarters on June 21, 2011. As Goodwill Ambassador, Whitaker works with UNESCO to support and develop initiatives that empower youths and keep them from entering or remaining in cycles of violence.