I feel so good about my last few projects. I didn't always feel that way, admits Forest Whitaker

The Oscar-winner talks about playing a legendary gangster in 'Godfather of Harlem', and reveals that he hadn't counted on 'Black Panther' having such a far reaching cultural effect

24 November 2019 - 00:00 By
Forest Whitaker as gangster Bumpy Johnson in 'Godfather of Harlem'.
Forest Whitaker as gangster Bumpy Johnson in 'Godfather of Harlem'.
Image: Supplied

In person, Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker is not quite as big as you might think, based on the many characters he's played on screen, from Charlie Parker to Idi Amin, but he's still several heads taller than the short journalist who's nervously watching the famous actor walk towards him at the Palazzo Hotel at Montecasino in Sandton on a Friday afternoon.

Whitaker, who went to college on a football scholarship in his teens before a back injury meant he had to change majors, to singing and then acting, is quick to congratulate the Springboks on their recent Rugby World Cup victory before getting started.

Humble, modest, as softly spoken and gravelly voiced as he is in the movies, Whitaker sits down to talk about his role as legendary 1960s Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson in the Epix series Godfather of Harlem, which he's in SA to promote.

Johnson is a complicated character, who Whitaker describes as "someone who was giving to his community in some ways but there was a big dichotomy in the fact that he was doing certain things that were harming the community and other things that were helping the community - he was giving out food and scholarships to college. He was a complicated character and we get a chance to explore that in a way that's quite unique."

The first season of the show, written by Narcos creator Chris Brancato, is set in 1963 and begins with Johnson, recently released from prison, returning to Harlem to stamp his authority on the drug business and stave off threats to his ambitions from the Italian mob.

At the same time he is confronted with the growing rise of the Civil Rights movement, led by his former hustler friend turned Muslim Brotherhood leader, Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch).

Whitaker's career has been peppered with historical roles, from his breakout acting job at age 27 in Clint Eastwood's 1988 Charlie Parker biopic Bird to his Oscar-winning role as Idi Amin in Kevin McDonald's 2009 film The Last King of Scotland.

In this show, the placing of the story of its gangster protagonist against the backdrop of a pivotal year in the history of the Civil Rights movement was a strong incentive for Whitaker to not only produce the show but also star in it.

As he explains: "1963 was a pivotal moment in the Civil Rights movement - it was the year [George] Wallace became governor of Alabama, and then the girls [Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley] were killed in Birmingham [in the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing - an act of white supremacist terrorism] and Martin Luther King and the march on Washington [for Jobs and Freedom] and the 'I have a dream' speech and then the assassination of JF Kennedy. So you put the characters in the context of those events and they're having to deal with some of the issues. That starts to colour the way the story is told and what's said and the depths of our universes. I think that's really worked out in the series in an important way."

The show also uses modern music created by producer Swiss Beats and a host of new musicians to bring home to audiences how Johnson's historical story and circumstances have pertinent relevance for the current era in the US.

Whitaker hopes that "it makes you have to look at the issues that were going on at the time and current issues and realise that we've not been able to surpass some of these issues. We're still struggling with them as a country and this extends to other places in the world."

Actor Forest Whitaker.
Actor Forest Whitaker.
Image: Alaister Russel

As a producer who runs his own production company, Significant Productions, which has created several successful, independent, socially conscious films by young directors, including Ryan Coogler's Fruitvale Station and Boots Riley's Sorry to Bother You, Whitaker is aware of the challenges of making sure that the work he produces on screen tallies with his political and social concerns.

He runs the Whitaker Peace and Development Initiative, which promotes non-violence and leadership among young people in communities ravaged by violence.

As an actor of colour who's been quietly but doggedly working for over three decades, Whitaker is witnessing a moment in film production in which storytelling by people of colour and of different genders and new voices has dramatically increased in both the film and series spaces.

It's a moment that's been given a significant boost thanks to the success of Coogler's Black Panther in which Whitaker acted, and while he says that he's always believed that the film "was going to make a billion dollars" he "didn't know how that would reflect culturally. I think the film gave a sense of self and belonging to communities that had never seen themselves on screen before and that was something I hadn't counted on - the ripple effect of what that means and the sense of identity it gave people. Ryan did an amazing job."

In interviews, Whitaker has often said that until he won the Oscar in 2010 for Last King of Scotland he didn't quite feel that he deserved to think of himself as a full-time actor. He is 58 this year and admits that in recent years he's been enjoying the freedom of being able to choose his own roles.

He's been immortalised in popular culture, thanks to the Migos track that bears his name, and has his own production company that works on helping him to stay at the forefront of the production of content that talks to a new generation of audiences hungry for great shows.

"I feel so good about the last few projects I've been involved in. I didn't always feel that way. I now feel I have the right tools to create the characters I want to explore, whereas before I would struggle," he says.

WATCH | The trailer for 'Godfather of Harlem'

As our time draws to a close, I take off my journalist hat and slip into fanboy mode. I take out my vinyl of the soundtrack to Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, a 1999 film created by indie legend Jim Jarmusch and my favourite Whitaker film. I hand it to him to sign. As he does, the Oscar winner becomes something of a fanboy himself, smiling as he remembers how much he, "loved working on the movie".

He adds: "It was written for me. It's an odd interpretation of the way Jim sees me. We met at a Super 8 [filmmaking] workshop and discussed working together in the parking lot. A year later, he called me and said 'I've got an idea'. We met and talked for four or five hours. He went back to New York when he felt he had enough information to make the movie. He wrote the script and it was amazing."

Whitaker has a number of projects on the go: more seasons of Godfather of Harlem in the pipeline, a miniseries created by his company in production and a role in Respect, the upcoming biopic of the late soul legend Aretha Franklin. Whitaker plays her father, the "most imitated preacher in history", Carl Franklin.

Our interview ends and the 6 foot 2 (1.87m) actor with the understated, gravely voice and humble, peace-loving soul shuffles down the corridor on the way to the next adventure in his distinguished career. The short journalist gingerly puts his souvenir away and thanks his lucky stars for the 20 minutes he's spent with one of the nicest Oscar winners he's had the privilege of meeting.

• Godfather of Harlem is available on Showmax.