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SBIFF Honors Forest Whitaker with Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film

Actor shares his insight on the importance of his film 'The Butler,' during an elegant evening serving as a fundraiser for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival

[Click here for a Noozhawk photo gallery from the event.]

The new year brought the first big Santa Barbara International Film Festival event to the Bacara Resort & Spa on Sunday night, providing guests and donors with a final opportunity to assist with funding for this year’s festival while also honoring Forest Whitaker with the eighth annual Kirk Douglas Award for Excellence in Film.

A large crowd dressed in black-tie attire gathered at the posh location for the award presentation that served as a fundraiser for the 29th year of the festival, scheduled to run Jan. 30 through Feb. 9.

“Film teaches us about other perspectives and gives us insights that we can’t get otherwise,” said SBIFF sponsor Lynda Weinman of “We attract the best and the brightest to the film festival, and we just believe that we should give back and so we support them.”

Whitaker is the first African American recipient of the award. Previous recipients of the Kirk Douglas Award were Robert De Niro, Michael Douglas, Harrison Ford, Quentin Tarantino, Ed Harris, John Travolta and the award's namesake, Kirk Douglas.

A red carpet entrance kicked off the event with the Academy Award-winning guest of honor, who was joined by two actors linked to his career who would also serve as presenters and speakers on this special night — Angela Bassett and Michael B. Jordan.

Bassett, of Waiting to Exhale, How Stella Got Her Groove Back and Malcolm X fame, was effusive of her opportunity to work with Whitaker on the 2013 holiday musical Black Nativity.

“Working with Forest is complete and utter joy," she said. "It’s a thrill to show up on the set every day to look in his eyes, to learn from him, to observe him, to bounce off of him in scene. It’s amazing.”

She elaborated on the importance of Whitaker’s role as Cecil Gaines in Lee Daniels’ The Butler for the black community.

“Any film that shows our unique value and contribution, to show those are very important because we contributed in big ways, small ways, quiet ways, subtle ways, complex ways and there’s value in every human being,” Bassett said.

Known for his work in The Wire and Friday Night Lights, Jordan is the lead actor in Fruitvale Station, a movie that Whitaker helped produce with Significant Productions, a Los Angeles-based company founded with the goal of raising people’s consciousness.

Jordan emphasized the messages that he hopes audiences will take away from Fruitvale Station

“Hopefully people walk away from the film after seeing it and think about the way we treat each other and how it is to walk a mile in our shoes," he said. "You know, you can’t just read a news clip or a newspaper article — it’s more than that. We’re human, and I think we’re viewed as less than human a lot of times as a young black male.”

The presentation began with SBIFF Executive Director Roger Durling welcoming the crowd as he introduced this year’s Kirk Douglas Award winner, who was handpicked by Douglas for his film skills and humanitarian efforts. 

The event was previously planned for last month but was rescheduled when Whitaker attended Nelson Mandela's funeral service in South Africa in December. Whitaker is well known for his humanitarian efforts and is the founder of PeaceEarth Foundation and the UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador for Peace and Reconciliation.

A montage of clips showcased more than three decades of Whitaker’s work, with films such as The Crying Game, The Color of Money, Platoon and Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai.

Whitaker told Noozhawk about the preparation that was needed to make The Butler in order to capture different time periods and moments.

“I was dealing with a drama that had to chronicle a time and a period, and I wanted to know also everything that was going on outside — not in the script, but outside that was in the world," he said. “At the same time I needed to understand what it was like to be a butler and understand not just the serving process and all that but also the mental state and thoughts and processes, as well as to try and understand what it means to age — to allow your experiences to be carried with you because you can see those in your eyes.”

He discussed the importance of making the film and the important message it provides to many black youths today who are unfamiliar with their history, “and I think they need to see that and reconcile where we are and where we come from.”

Whitaker also drew a parallel to the places his character travels in the film to find social justice and how this journey can lead to a change.

“The kids can become aware of their own power and understand that there’s so many different ways to activate and to change the society that they live in and that they have the power,” he said.

The ever popular and growing Santa Barbara International Film Festival attracts more than 75,000 people to town, spanning 11 days with more than 200 films, symposiums and panels for producers, women, directors and writers.

An impressive set of eagerly anticipated tributes and awards will be hosted again at the Arlington Theatre with another year of inspiring and legendary names, starting with Cate Blanchett on Feb. 1 receiving the Outstanding Performer of the Year Award.

SBIFF’s commitment to local cultural diversity includes a variety of programs benefiting local youth with a variety of free children’s education and community outreach programs that benefit more than 16,000 residents each year, including Mike’s Field Trip to the Movies, AppleBox, 10-10-10 Student Screenwriting and Filmmaking Competitions, 3rd Weekend and SBIFF College Internships.

Check back with Noozhawk for more on the film festival and special coverage of the tributes and awards.

Noozhawk iSociety columnist Melissa Walker can be reached at [email protected]. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkSociety, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.

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