The Way of the Whitaker

Masculine-feminine: Forest Whitaker with director Jim Jarmusch on the set of Ghost Dog


FOREST WHITAKER IS contemplating a mysterious bowl that a tea-bearing server has just set before him. "What's this one?" he asks. "That just holds the strainer," the waiter explains. Whitaker fingers the vessel. "They serve it cool, man," he concludes, admiring the ceremony.

As played with infinite calm by Whitaker, the title character of Jim Jarmusch's Ghost Dog is a hip-hop samurai hit man haunting the surreal streets of a run-down 'hood, applying ancient customs to forlorn postindustrial environs. This makes Philadelphia's posh Four Seasons hotel, with its discreet corps of uniformed attendants and its genteel etiquette, an ironic yet apt setting in which to talk to him about age-old samurai codes and contemporary street culture.

Like the mystic warrior he plays, Whitaker relishes details, from home fries to the decorum of swordsmanship. "It's like Julia Child's etiquette book!" he says of samurai rules. "Don't look your boss in the face, don't point your sword toward the emblem, and when you cough, you must move your head downward." No wonder Ghost Dog's lightning-quick gunslinging precisely mimics swordplay. "There are, like, five moves I do when I put it in," Whitaker says, gesticulating. "You flick off the blood, and when you put it in your holster, you wipe it off with your sleeve. I did that to pay homage to the samurai code."

Nevertheless, bound volumes are the preferred weapons in Ghost Dog's quixotic cosmos. They're the source of deep connection between him and Pearline (Camille Winbush), a wise young girl who totes books such as The Souls of Black Folk, Frankenstein, and the lurid Night Nurse in her lunch box. And the pair's trading of books depends on respect and etiquette, too: The elder warrior loans a volume to his disciple on the condition that she bring it back--along with her opinion. These are among the film's most magical moments, as the hit man models what Paulo Freire would call the radical pedagogy of the oppressed.

Accordingly, it's no surprise that Whitaker himself talks about "carrying" books the way some would speak of packing heat. "I usually carry maybe 12 books with me, at least. Most of them are religious texts, of Asian or African origin." And he describes the love of comic books in "the hip-hop community," and cartoons in Ghost Dog, as spiritual, signifying a return to aboriginal myths featuring trickster animals and archangels.

Still, it seems worth asking how the Hagakure, an esoteric feudal text favored by World War II-era Japanese militarists and ultranationalists (and alternately disparaged by Japanese pacifists), circulated into the lending libraries of a postpunk beatnik director and a self-sworn "humanist" actor. And what does Whitaker, the director of so-called chick flicks Waiting to Exhale and Hope Floats, think about the film's mournful celebration of resolutely patriarchal codes--even if daughters inherit them in the end?

"What makes you think that way is [that] a god of war is a cutting god," says Whitaker, apparently disappointed that I would ask about Ghost Dog's male bent. "It's a very masculine energy: It's destructive, like chopping, cutting, piercing. It's not a nurturing, growing energy. But Ghost Dog's energy is internal, feminine energy. That power is the female source, the original primordial energy--that kind of what's-at-the-bottom-of-the-ocean understanding. Even though the expression of it is, in this case, very masculine."

Okay. But why aren't women among the "tribes" his character meets? "It's not about gender," Whitaker calmly insists. "It's about codes. And the transcendence of life."

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