He made his screen debut in Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), then received critical recognition for his role in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money (1986). In 1988, Whitaker played his first leading role in Clint Eastwood's Bird, earning him the Cannes Best Actor Award and a Golden Globe nod.
Other notable films include Good Morning, Vietnam, The Crying Game, Jason's Lyric and Panic Room. In 1995, Whitaker made his feature directing debut with Waiting to Exhale. His turn in The Last King of Scotland (2006) garnered him high praise with his first Oscar win, along with Golden Globe and BAFTA wins.