Forest Whitaker's Best Performances, Ranked

The Last King of Scotlan

Forest Whitaker has been around for a long time. And whether we’re talking Forest Whitaker movies he’s starred in or Forest Whitaker movies he’s directed (like, did you know he directed Hope Floats starring Sandra Bullock?), the man has always been a mainstay in the business who’s brought both style and substance to anything he touches.

But let’s focus on his acting, since he’s really gone the full range (I mean, come on now. His next project is supposed to be a holiday musical on Netflix called Jingle Jangle). From sci-fi, to drama, from good guy to bad, if there’s one thing I can say about Forest Whitaker, it’s that I have no idea what he’s going to do next, which is what makes him so exciting. So here are the actor’s best roles. How many of these have you seen?


10. Ker – Battlefield Earth (2000)

Battlefield Earth is the 2000s version of Troll 2. What I mean is, it’s a movie that’s so hilariously bad, it’s legendary. What’s it about? Jeez, I don’t know. Something about slave labor (involving “man-animals”), a rebellion, and some aliens called “Psychlos” that love gold. That’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

But let’s talk about Forest Whitaker’s performance in it, because honestly, he does a pretty great job as Deputy Ker despite this being such a ridiculous movie. He emotes anger, hostility, amusement, and often all in the same scene. He really does give it his all. And get this. Of the seven Golden Raspberry nominations that Battlefield Earth received back in 2000, Forest Whitaker wasn’t one of them. And that’s really saying something for a movie as bad as Battlefield Earth.

Big Harold

9. Big Harold – Platoon (1986)

Forest Whitaker doesn’t play a huge role in the Oliver Stone movie, Platoon, but it is a memorable one. Playing Big Harold, we get the full range of his character’s emotions from beginning to end. And while I’m not going to spoil what happens to his character, I will say that it’s important to know that he’s hurting real bad inside.

Forest Whitaker is amazing in this role since there are so many great standout performances, but Whitaker still manages to stand out from the crowd. It’s his calm demeanor. When juxtaposed by the horrific events taking place in Vietnam, we get a sense that Big Harold would be a very different person in a different setting, which is what makes him such a tragic figure in the end.

Nate Pope

8. Nate Pope – Phenomenon (1996)

This romantic drama stars John Travolta as a man who suddenly becomes a genius and gets telekinetic powers. He plays the brain of the film, but Forest Whitaker, who plays Travolta’s best friend, Nate, is the heart.

Nate is an unassuming man who thinks the air force might be listening in on his shortwave radio. He also gets tricked into a relationship with a Portuguese woman. But what makes Nate such a great character is that he’s just living out his life and being there for his best buddy, who’s going through a lot of changes. And when the film finally reaches its conclusion, you feel like you’ve been on the journey along with Nate and his suddenly brilliant friend. Phenomenon actually made my father cry (though he refuses to admit it), and Forest Whitaker’s performance, humble as it was, was definitely part of the reason for why it brought my dad to tears.

Forest Whitaker as Burnham on the left

7. Burnham – Panic Room (2002)

In this David Fincher thriller, Panic Room, Forest Whitaker plays Burnham, a smart thief who is just trying to make the best of a bad situation. He might be a “bad guy”, but he’s the kind of bad guy who gives insulin shots to his diabetic victim when she needs it the most. So yeah, he plays a complex character.

What makes Forest Whitaker such a strong actor can often be seen in his eyes. He’s usually very-soft spoken when he’s talking, but his eyes tell a different story. And that works to his favor in this movie where he plays a reluctant, yet compliant, thief. This movie definitely has Jodie Foster and Kristen Stewart in the spotlight for their performances, but it would be a mistake not to consider how great Forest Whitaker is in it as well.

Captain Ed Ramey on the right

6. Captain Ed. Ramey – Phone Booth (2003)

It’s kind of crazy, but Forest Whitaker has played a lot of cops. But his best role as a police officer was probably as Captain Ed. Ramey in Joel Schumacher’s Phone Booth, which is about a man (Colin Farrell) trapped in a phone booth by a sniper (played by Kiefer Sutherland).

What makes Forest Whitaker’s performance so good is his calm demeanor. Phone Booth is a really frenetic movie, but in comes Forest Whitaker to slow it down and make it manageable and even more enjoyable as a negotiator. Rest in peace, Joel Schumacher.

Saw Gerrera

5. Saw Gerrera - Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

A resistance fighter with a cool beard and even cooler armor (as well as some weird mind-reading creature named Bor Gullet), Saw Gerrera is torn apart and battle weary, which is the perfect role for Forest Whitaker. Throughout his career, you always got a sense that Mr. Whitaker plays characters who have already seen some stuff and are now just tired, which is pretty much Saw Gerrera to a T.

In a lot of ways, I feel like Saw Gerrera is Forest Whitaker’s way of apologizing to all the sci-fi fans out there for Battlefield Earth, and he succeeded. Saw is both tough and introspective and makes for a really compelling character. And hey, Forest Whitaker himself loves the role, so that’s something.


4. Zuri – Black Panther (2018)

Like most Forest Whitaker performances, Zuri from Black Panther is lowkey one of the most important and memorable characters in the whole story. Playing the King’s trusted advisor, Zuri is well aware of T’Challa’s connection to Killmonger because he was there when he witnessed what happened to Killmonger’s father. And you can read it on his face that he’s been carrying that burden with him his entire life.

Forest Whitaker was perfectly cast for this role since it required somebody who could speak more in silence than in words. It’s like when listening to jazz. Are you listening to the notes that are being played, or the notes that are not being played? And in a lot of ways, Forest Whitaker has built a whole career on those kinds of performances.

Bird on the left

3. Charlie Parker – Bird (1988)

Speaking of jazz, Forest Whitaker can sweat, man! You might not think that’s any real feat for an actor. But when you watch Bird, which was directed by Clint Eastwood and about the true life of the saxophonist, Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, you really get a sense that it’s Parker blowing away on that sax rather than Whitaker. And it’s not just the scenes when he’s blowing the sax, either, as Whitaker also plays a convincing addict, as Parker was a notorious heroin abuser.

The film jumps around in Parker’s life, but Whitaker is what keeps the story grounded and digestible. I’ll tell you. Whitaker seems to be really great in imbuing actual people, and Bird is just another example of that. When I listen to Charlie Parker, I always envision Forest Whitaker.

Ghost Dog

2. Ghost Dog – Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999)

You know what? If Tom Cruise can play “the last” samurai, then I don’t see why Forest Whitaker can’t play a samurai, too. But in my opinion, Whitaker plays a much better samurai in this crime film directed by Jim Jarmusch. The story centers around a hit man for the mafia who believes in the ways of the samurai. Weird stuff!

But great stuff, too. Honestly, I can’t see anybody else pulling off this role without it dovetailing into comedy, but Forest Whitaker plays it straight the entire time. And by the end of it, you really do feel like his character had embraced the way of the samurai. I personally think this is Forest Whitaker’s best performance given how committed he is to such a bonkers story, but I can’t put it above his number one role, since he won an Oscar for that one, for crying out loud.

Idi Amin

1. Idi Amin – The Last King of Scotland (2006)

You would think that Forest Whitaker is the main character in this semi-biographical story (I mean, he did win Best Actor for this role, after all), but he’s not. It’s James McAvoy, who plays a fictional doctor to Forest Whitaker’s portrayal of the very real Idi Amin. But don’t tell that to the Ugandan dictator, since he would likely have you killed on the spot. The film, at its best, shows how brutal and terrifying Uganda’s President really was, and all throughout the film, you fear for McAvoy’s character’s life. And he wasn’t even a real person!

But that’s how damn good Forest Whitaker is in the role. He’s electric throughout the entire thing, but also funny, and even charming at times, which I’m sure all dictators must be at some point, since they are people, even if they’re outwardly monsters to everyone around them. The Last King of Scotland is a great film with a phenomenal performance, and it will most likely always be seen as Forest Whitaker’s best role.

Forest Whitaker has been in several films, but these are his best roles. But out of the ones listed here, which one is your favorite and why? Sound off in the comments.

This poll is no longer available.

Rich Knight
Content Producer

Rich is a Jersey boy, through and through. He graduated from Rutgers University (Go, R.U.!), and thinks the Garden State is the best state in the country. That said, he’ll take Chicago Deep Dish pizza over a New York slice any day of the week. Don’t hate. When he’s not watching his two kids, he’s usually working on a novel, watching vintage movies, or reading some obscure book.