AUBERVILLIERS, France (AP) — Renowned actor Forest Whitaker, who has portrayed a dictator, a Mafia hitman and a butler, has taken on what for some may be his most inspirational role.
Whitaker officially inaugurated on Wednesday his Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative in Seine-Saint-Denis, meant to bring business, communication and conflict resolution skills to the young people of France’s poorest region. Free classes are being offered in a small space with big ideas in Aubervilliers, outside Paris.
It is the Academy Award winner’s first foray into Europe, and the ninth country where his nongovernmental organization operates, all light years from the lights of Hollywood and the accolades and awards bestowed on him for his film career. His presence in Aubervilliers forms part of an arc that included his work with child soldiers in Uganda, where his NGO is present.
“I would see in some of their eyes this look … a look that I knew from when I remember gang members from my neighborhood” in Los Angeles, he said to a crowd of local officials and enthusiastic members of his French NGO. All eyes were glued on his large, quiet presence. “I started trying to figure out how to fix that,” he said. In the end, “I knew that the only way to really find peace was to work together as a society and to work together on the ground.”
Returning to the here and now, he added that “sometimes we have to address peace that way, to work as a team on the ground … we have to know that we can make a difference ourselves.”
The learning center, located above an outlet of PNB-Paribas bank, which lent Whitaker a huge hand in his discovery of Aubervilliers, actually began offering its free classes in late April and currently has more than 70 students. The hope is to have 200 students by the end of the year. Among courses taught are entrepreneurship, communications, computer science and social mediation.
“Everything is linked,” said Aminata Sidibe, in charge of the school. Identifying conflict areas, working to prevent them and stopping them are skills needed within families and in businesses alike, she said. A special program, the Fighters, is reserved for women, whom Whitaker says have shown themselves important to effecting change, to provide the needed baggage to integrate and succeed.
Bringing Whitaker’s NGO to Seine-Saint-Denis was a process. He visited another town in 2021 before being introduced to Aubervilliers. He said he got “an understanding” of the place and then reviewed the data — unemployment rate of 39% and poverty at 34% plus a soaring crime rate.
“It’s a great opportunity for us to be able to partner in an area that people imagine is down, but actually has potential, a lot of potential, to go up,” he said.
Aubervilliers Mayor Karine Franclet sees the arrival of Whitaker’s initiative as one more reason for optimism, like the coming of the 2024 Olympic Games. A swimming pool is under construction in Aubervilliers to be used for Olympic athletes to train. “The numbers are very bad,” but 30% of the population is under 30 years of age, and the town is “too often unexploited.” Whitaker “is an example of success,” she said.
There are hundreds of associations aimed at helping residents of Seine-Saint-Denis, so Whitaker’s is one more.
“This is a dream, you know. You said you were going to build a center here, and now I’m sitting in front of you and here we are,” Whitaker said to the crowd.
Whitaker won the 2007 Academy Award for best actor for his starring role in “The Last King of Scotland” — his second such honor — plus Britain’s BAFTA awards, the Golden Globe and a string of other prizes.
Whitaker was in Aubervilliers as the Cannes Film Festival was in session in southern France. He won an Honorary Palme d’Or there last year for his body of work. But he said “no” when asked if he would visit the Riviera venue this year.
Instead, he said he was heading off to Uganda, Rwanda and other points on the African continent.