Before Nina Yang Bongiovi and her producing partner Forest Whitaker launched Significant Productions and created acclaimed films such as Fruitvale Station, Dope, Roxanne Roxanne and Sorry to Bother You, Bongiovi had another career in mind: journalism. Specifically, she saw a career as an on-air reporter — much like Connie Chung.
Immigrant parents tend to make their children gravitate toward more stable careers that guarantee money — something usually in the realm of medicine, law or business. “[Connie Chung] was the one person that my mom identified with, so I actually was allowed to pursue something different,” Bongiovi told Deadline. She studied journalism as an undergrad and worked in a newsroom, but then her parents realized that not everyone starts their journalism career with a Connie Chung’s salary.
“There’s no money in it,” laughed Bongiovi. “My mom was highly disappointed!”
If anything, Bongiovi’s short stint as a journalist informed her what she didn’t want to do. She went to study entertainment management at USC, which led to a job in the marketing division at Warner Bros. She was doing presentation decks and quickly came to the realization that wasn’t necessarily her cup of tea. She wanted to make movies. Thus launched a long-run plan that would eventually lead her to partner with Whitaker to make dope movies.
Whether intentional or not, she was strategic in how she navigated what she wanted to do in Hollywood — so she went to Asia where she worked on kung fu movies, working with Stanley Tong, the Hong Kong filmmaker who worked closely with Jackie Chan on some of his most iconic movies including China Strike Force.
For three and a half years, Bongiovi started to sculpt her career, learning the necessary skills in filmmaking and production. She wanted to start developing her own projects and went to Taiwan to raise money for indie films. Even though she managed to get some money in the bank, she admitted that there was a lot of heartbreak and speedbumps on the journey to make a film.
“I just learned from all my mistakes,” she said. “I would say that the first 10 years of my career I failed, four of them in Asia. I was learning, but it’s not like I was doing anything significant.” She explains that in filmmaking, you have to go in rich and be independently wealthy in order to make money.
She would continue to learn from her mistakes as her friends and family would tell her to get out of the industry. “My brother was like, ‘You have to do real estate’,” she laughed.
Things started to shift in 2009 when she met a man by the name of Forest Whitaker. She met him through WME and in an act of blind faith asked him if he would star in a movie she was developing about an interracial couple trying to adopt a baby in China. She gave him the script and, to her surprise, he came back to her.
“He was so kind and said, ‘I really love the story — but the script isn’t so strong,’ ” she said. And in another surprise, he offered to help her out with the script. “I said I don’t have money for another writer,” she said. “He then said, ‘Well, my friend Ron Bass will help.'” Yes, that Ron Bass — the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of Rain Man.
Shortly after they met, Bongiovi was planning a trip to China for the film and to spend time with her father and her family because her mother passed away. Having gone through some tough times, Whitaker said he wanted to come with her — another surprise. He came with her and he met her family and friends, and her brother was even trying to sell him Herbalife.
“He was so sympathetic and empathetic to my situation — but I didn’t want to come across like I’m depressed,” Bongiovi said. “After you get beaten up so much trying to climb up the ladder in this industry, you just feel like, ‘Why is this person being so kind?’ That transpired into a friendship.”
Unfortunately, the Chinese government didn’t allow her to make her movie there, but when she returned stateside Whitaker got an offer from ABC-Disney for television. He called her and asked if she wanted to start a production company.
“It’s a major benchmark,” said Bongiovi. “We both loved feature films so we wanted to find a feature that represents what we’re building and that’s when we came with Significant Productions — everything we’re making is significant and culturally significant.”
She added, “Thinking back now everything kind of just fell into place. Maybe the universe was working its magic — my mom was working her magic.”
When searching for their first project, someone mentioned a young director at USC by the name of Ryan Coogler. When Bongiovi met him for the first time she immediately connected with him. “You feel a certain sense of comfort when you talk to him,” she said about Coogler. “I felt like he had an old soul.”
His warmth echoed his work. When Bongiovi watched his short films she admitted that each and every one brought her to tears — or in her words, she was “ugly crying.”
“One thing about Ryan was his short films were so simple, but they were so impactful, emotionally impactful, so you just know,” she said. “This kid is a storyteller.”
When she showed his material to Whitaker, he was immediately on board with his talent. When they met with him, Coogler talked about his passion projects and the first thing he talked about was the shooting of Oscar Grant at the Fruitvale BART station in Oakland. Bongiovi said Coogler identified with Grant because that could have been him or any of his friends, or his brothers. It just so happens that Coogler was hired to sort through the surveillance footage of the shooting of Grant, editing it for the courts. He immediately knew that this was the movie he wanted to make — and Bongiovi and Whitaker agreed.
Naturally, Grant’s mother Wanda Johnson didn’t trust anyone to tell this story. She didn’t want to deal with lawyers, let alone Hollywood trying to tell the story of her family’s tragedy. Bongiovi and Whitaker respected that. After talking with Johnson about the project, Johnson told Bongiovi that if she convinced her minister, she would give them her blessing. Bongiovi said she didn’t want to make any mistakes and after presenting the material to Johnson’s minister, he said, “It sounds good to me.” After 11 months, Fruitvale Station was on its way to being made.
Coogler wrote the script and after shaving it down from 150 to 115 pages, it was ready to go. Even so, the monetary well was dry because no one was interested in funding it — at least no one stateside. Bongiovi reached out to her colleagues in Asia.
“When everybody turned us down for Fruitvale, my [investors] were like, ‘like you’re super annoying’ and ‘you’re harassing us!’ ” she laughed. “But my core investors have always been Asian and Asian-American.”
Fruitvale Station went on to premiere at Sundance in 2013 to a standing ovation and critical acclaim. It received the Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance, the 2013 Cannes Film Festival L’Avenir Award, and earned Bongiovi and Whitaker a Producers Guild of America Stanley Kramer Award. It made Hollywood take notice of Coogler and cemented the duo as producers who were out to, like their production company says, make significant and relevant projects. More than that, the film made $16.1 million at the domestic box office ($17.4 million globally). Because of that, her Asian investors continued to fund their films and, in turn, introduced the masses to stories and filmmakers including Rick Famuyiwa’s Dope, Chloé Zhao’s Songs My Brother Taught Me and Michael Larnell’s Roxanne Roxanne.
Last year, they released Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You — a script Bongiovi did not allow her team to read before agreeing to it. “I told them: you got to trust me on this one,” she said. They did and the film about gentrification, code switching and identity in a hyper-realistic version of Oakland became a critical success. Sorry to Bother You showcased Riley’s distinct, off-center and bonkers storytelling skills. “That was a very important story to tell, where once again we went against the grain,” said Bongiovi.
She added, “Having the Asian American investors involved in these last five films has proven to me that it’s good business when you invest in a diverse cast.”
With Significant finding traction in the film department, Bongiovi and Whitaker have now decided to make their foray into television with Godfather of Harlem, which puts the spotlight on the life of infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson in the 1960s. The Epix drama from Chris Brancato (Narcos: Mexico) and Paul Eckstein (Narcos) stars Whitaker as Bumpy, who returns to his neighborhood of Harlem after 10 years in prison to find the streets he once ruled now controlled by the Italian mob. Naturally, Bumpy wants to regain control.
As their first series, Bongiovi said she has enjoyed learning the aspects of TV producing versus that of a feature film. There’s a convergence of film and television that is happening right now, and she embraces that. “For those of us who are featured film people going in, it’s a learning curve — a big learning curve,” she admits.
Although it is a TV series, Godfather of Harlem includes the cinematic verve seen in Bonigiovi’s films. Perhaps its because they have Oscar winner Guillermo Navarro (Pan’s Labyrinth) as their DP and hip hop superstar Swizz Beatz providing the music.
The real-life Bumpy Johnson has been featured in many TV series and films. Most notably, he was portrayed in 2007’s American Gangster by Clarence Williams III. For the most part, those versions were loosely based on the crime boss, or his name is just referenced. Godfather of Harlem gives a fully fleshed-out narrative based on his life.
Having premiered September 29, Godfather of Harlem is still fresh to the TV landscape. Bongiovi said they already have mapped out five seasons starting in 1963 and continuing through 1968, the year Bumpy died.
In using Johnson’s real life, Bongiovi understands creative license is required to fill out a TV show. They also are aware of the portrayal of each character — particularly the characters of color featured in the series, revered icons including a young Cassius Clay, Lena Horne and Malcolm X (the latter played brilliantly by Nigel Thatch). They even went as far to enlist Professor James Small, the bodyguard to Malcolm X’s family, to ensure accuracy of the portrayal of the character.
“Being producers of color, we’re very conscious of representation,” she said, adding that they are staying away from typical gangster tropes. “We’re mindful of how each character is portrayed; we want to portray each character with complexity and depth. Instead of a trope that we just talk about. Also, if it was something that was stereotypical, Forest wouldn’t have attached himself to star in it.”
Set in the era of the civil rights movement, Godfather of Harlem resonates in the current political climate and Bongiovi hopes it speaks to audiences. “For so many, African Americans still have to face issues of police brutality, profiling and all of that,” she said. “And with Harlem becoming completely gentrified today, this is all relevant.”
She adds, “We’re making something that hopefully will appeal to a mass audience that will support it, to see it as a cinematic event.”
As a woman of color in a top decision-making position in the industry, Bongiovi represents the progress the industry is making. Surprisingly, she has gotten pushback from many in the Asian American community because she produces films that are made by black creators and star black actors.
About four years ago, she was on a filmmaking panel and an Asian American told her “you only do black films” to which she responded, “No, I do excellent films — I work with excellent filmmakers and my partner is Forrest Whitaker. We know how to produce.”
She points out that there is a problem amongst Asian Americans where many aren’t willing to support each other because there are so many ethnicities within the community. “They tend to complain and say ‘there’s not enough of this’ or ‘there’s not enough of that’,” she said. “We have to come together.”
“I remember at another panel someone goes well it’s kind of hard to support what you do because you only make black films,” she remembers. “Then I said, ‘Is it hard for you to support an Asian American doing well in Hollywood?’ ”
For the naysayers, Bongiovi has a plan and a strategy based on the market. It’s not excluding, it’s waiting for the right time to tell a narrative that is willing to be heard. The company has has been building an African American-based audience to support their films and projects that have an impact on them and serve the market well. With their five films, they have proven their track record to their investors and studios who believed in them — because that rarely happens.
“I feel like I am more, I’m a logistical and business producer — I can put things together,” she said of her partnership with Whitaker. “I’m creative producer but not as creative like Forest.”
With Whitaker and Significant, she has been slowly building commodity and producing power. Their roots have been in films with black creators and talent, and she points out that they have done that well. From there, it opens up the world to them as multicultural producers.
When Crazy Rich Asians came out and became a massive hit, Whitaker texted Bongiovi and said “Congratulations!”
“I texted him back and said, ‘You know I didn’t produce it right?'” she laughed. “He said that the film gave them the opportunity to do Asian-American projects now because the world has opened up. I was so happy that that was waiting for this moment like me.”
That said, Bongiovi and Whitaker recently signed a first-look deal with Amazon and aren’t wasting any time in developing Asian American and other multicultural narratives often erased from history. She is keeping many of the projects under wraps but guarantees she has a slate of projects that will have Asian Americans in front of and behind the camera. In the meantime, she will forge ahead and champion stories from those in the margins, like Godfather of Harlem and the recently announced forthcoming bilingual comedy Este Día directed by Catalina Aguilar Mastretta.
“There is a long vision for what I’m building at Significant with Forest,” she said. “We’ve proven that our films do well. Because of our taste level, we get to choose what projects we work on and who we work with.”