It was a cold night in Santa Barbara, one of the more beautiful places on the planet. The ocean stretches out longways on your left. On your right, giant homes dot the hillside, twinkling lights within. The Kirk Douglas award was being held at the Bacara resort, an opulent palace hooked over the sea. Oscars 2013 was coming to a close. I was on my way to see Forest Whitaker, whose brilliant performance carries The Butler, celebrated with the Kirk Douglas award for the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
Fruitvale Station’s Michael B. Jordan and Black Nativity’s Angela Bassett were on hand to pay tribute to the veteran actor, along with hundreds of Santa Barbara’s finest, decked out in black tie attire – heels, furs, diamonds. It was being held all the way across the state from the Palms Springs fest where most of the Oscar populace were on hand. Palms Springs, Santa Barbara – what do these two things have in common? They are where Oscar voters go to rest and watch the sun set in the twilight of their careers.
The Butler’s fate has not yet been determined. The Screen Actors guild, by far the most ethnically diverse of the guilds, honored The Butler big time, with nods for Ensemble, Whitaker, and Oprah Winfrey. But the Producers Guild did not. The only one of the three films — by black filmmakers it must be noted, that did manage a Producers Guild nod was 12 Years a Slave, which guarantees Brad Pitt will be at the party. It used to be that black filmmakers didn’t make films the critics liked. And indeed, they ripped apart The Butler, mostly. They were tepid to encouraging on Fruitvale Station, but they lost their heads with Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, which goes down as the best reviewed film of this year.
Forest Whitaker is a revelation in The Butler. For me it’s the scene where he has to serve cookies for the bazillionth time. The look on his face, the struggle to keep back the sudden shame he felt in that position, was one of the most pivotal moments of the year for the film and for acting overall this year.
Michael B. Jordan credited Whitaker’s participation in Fruitvale Station as being one of the main reasons the film got made at all. Black Nativity did not make a blip on Oscar, or film critics’ radar, but it was clear from how Bassett talked about it that it was a project meaningful to the actress and to Whitaker. The best part of the evening were the long clips of Whitaker’s career, his work in Last King of Scotland, which earned him an Oscar win, but going all the way back to Fast Times at Ridgemont High when he played the football star.
Whitaker received two standing ovations at the dinner, and gave a humble speech that talked all about dreams and the possibilities. He is full of optimism, which infused the room with a permanent glow. He graciously shook hands with the many attendees who wanted to meet him before posing with his award for photographers.
The guests in their high heels and penguin suits filed out to wait in the valet line. Driving out of the Baraca resort was as pretty as driving in. The ocean still reaches as far into the horizon as you can see, its edge eventually dissolving into the night sky. Oil rigs, or birds? You can’t really tell what those things are out there until they are hit with the light of day.