A most generous man: Fellow stars honor Forest Whitaker at SBIFF’s fundraising gala

Although it had been postponed several weeks, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival held its annual fundraiser Sunday night at the Bacara Resort & Spa, presenting the Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film to actor, director and producer Forest Whitaker. The sit-down dinner and black-tie affair was planned for Dec. 15, but scheduling conflicts pushed the event to the first week of 2014, less than a month away from the Festival itself, which begins Jan. 30.

This event, in its eighth year, is a more subdued affair than the similar celebrity awards evenings that draw thousands to the Festival. In place of a sit-down interview in front of theater audiences, the evening gives the podium over to fellow actors and directors to speak about the honoree, with some words from the star himself. And the Bacara, with tables named after select Whitaker films – from “Good Morning, Vietnam” to “Ghost Dog,” was the place to do it, far away from downtown.

Forest Whitaker’s 2013 was very profitable. He had a lead role in the generation-spanning drama “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” where he played White House servant to eight presidential administrations while witnessing the arc of the Civil Rights movement unfold. He appeared in “Black Nativity” with Angela Bassett and Jennifer Hudson. And as head of his own film company Significant Productions, he produced the Sundance Award-winning “Fruitvale Station.”

On a red carpet set outside the Bacara’s main ballroom, many of the actors who would later talk about working with Mr. Whitaker arrived and shared their thoughts. (Director Lee Daniels, however, was not in attendance, though originally listed.)

Actor Michael B. Jordan, starring in “Fruitvale Station,” talked about Mr. Whitaker as a kind mentor, being around in pre-production to help the actor build his character. Although he wasn’t around during shooting, Mr. Whitaker helped secure locations.

“He was like a godfather that you hardly saw, but every time you needed him he would be there,” said Mr. Jordan. “And as an actor, anytime I got stuck or got lost, I could pick up the phone and call him. He tried to make himself available as much as he could.”

Angela Bassett, along with her Tony-award winning husband, Courtney B. Vance, also had loving words for the man she’s known since the late-’80s. She worked with him first when he directed her in “Waiting to Exhale.”

“He was just the perfect man for that job,” she said. “He appreciated us, he made us feel so empowered and beautiful and validated and phenomenal. And whatever he asked, we’d just give and give and give.”

Ms. Bassett used “generous” to describe the man. “He must have a very evolved ego because it’s nowhere present.”

On top of his Hollywood work, the actor also has time for humanitarian causes, which includes the founding of the PeaceEarth Foundation, as well as being the co-founder and chairman of the International Institute for Peace and the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation.

How does he balance all this, and not get stressed? Because in person he not only appears at peace, he seemed to radiate it out to the press corps, who on Sunday night got quieter and quieter in their questions.

“I don’t know if I’ve achieved that balance,” he admitted. “I’ve just come back at the end of (2013) finally feeling a little release. And I don’t know if I balanced it. I just kept going and trying to do something special … but I found a way to be able to do it and feel good about doing it.”

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