In Godfather of Harlem, Forest Whitaker has tapped into one of the most complex roles and narratives of his storied career, which has already netted him an Oscar, a BAFTA Award, two SAG statuettes, the Cannes Film Festival’s award for Best Actor and countless other accolades.
The character he plays in the Epix series, created by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, is infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson, who wars with the Italian mob to regain control of his home turf when he gets out of Alcatraz in the early 1960s, aligning himself at the same time with Malcolm X.
Beyond its entertainment value as a crime drama the series — which he also exec produces — has real weight and contemporary resonance, exploring the intersection between crime, politics and systemic racism within the U.S.
Whitaker has been thinking about those themes and ideas for decades. His examination of the true meaning of justice, peace and equality is anchored in many years of work as both a student and a humanitarian. While studying at NYU Gallatin in the early 2000s, he pursued a degree in “The Core of Conflict: Studies in Peace and Reconciliation.” Later, he’d go on to found the International Institute for Peace at Rutgers University, also working with UNESCO as a Special Envoy for Peace and Reconciliation, and serving as CEO of the non-profit outreach program, WPDI.
In the world of entertainment, Whitaker has used his platform to champion underrepresented narratives and filmmakers such as Ryan Coogler and Chloé Zhao (Whitaker and his producing partner Nina Yang Bongiovi backed the first feature, Songs My Brothers Taught Me, from the latter director, who just recently won two Oscars for Nomadland).
While Whitaker’s next project as a producer is Rebecca Hall’s Sundance hit, Passing, he will also grace the screen in the Aretha Franklin biopic Respect and Gareth Evans’ Havoc, as well as the back half of Godfather Season 2, which debuts on August 8.
Also of note, in terms of the actor’s career, are two upcoming anniversaries. In 2022, his David Fincher thriller Panic Room will hit on a 20-year milestone. His first film ever, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, turns 40 next year.
Below, Whitaker touches on memories of Fast Times, the time he worked on a music video with Fincher, his upcoming roles, and developments on Godfather of Harlem that will keep “putting the pressure on.”
DEADLINE: Tell us about your first conversations with Godfather of Harlem’s writers and producers, regarding Season 2.
FOREST WHITAKER: I had a lot of discussions with the writers, with Chris Brancato and all the guys about what we were going to be exploring this season. I knew we were going to be starting [Bumpy] out in a desperate way because he’s under sanction to be killed. So we discussed that, and we talked about The French Connection being a big part of this season, and the drugs coming in from Marseilles. I was going to develop a different kind of relationship with [Vincent D’Onofrio’s Italian mobster] Chin, which becomes closer, and then further again, and then still respectful, and there were discussions about the feminism track that my wife was going to be taking.
DEADLINE: This season, the show continues to reckon with systemic racism in America, while grappling with other topics that have been at the forefront of the cultural conversation, including police brutality and the concept of anti-racism. Obviously, none of the issues explored are new. But has it surprised you at all to see just how much this season resonates with events playing out today?
WHITAKER: I don’t think that we could [have predicted] the progression that’s happened with protests in the streets, the movements that have occurred, and the blatantness of some of the deaths that have occurred. But in truth, we knew that when we did the first season, we were going to be holding ourselves up, in some ways, as a mirror to society, to really look at current problems that we’re dealing with—class, culture, race, have and have nots, abuse.
Here’s the thing. They asked me if I’d be interested in doing the show, and I said, “Let’s develop the script and see. I’m interested in doing something around the period of time when he knew Malcolm X and Adam Clayton [Powell Jr.], so we would be able to explore not just this criminal world of Bumpy Johnson, but almost the education of Bumpy Johnson, as he starts to learn from these other men, and what’s going on in the community.”
This was the perfect way for us to be able to explore that, and it reflected itself back to what was happening then, when we were first developing the show. Now, the show is taking on what was going on in 1964, which was protests, riots, police brutality. We start off [Season 2] with The Fruit Stand Riot, which is the Harlem Six, and those guys go to prison for life. Ultimately, all of them get out except for one guy, but that’s what happened. That sparked some problems in the community.
The Voting [Rights] Act [of 1965], too, was going on during that time, which parallels what’s happening in Georgia and Florida and different places, where they’re working on restructuring the laws around polling. So, those things, you know that they’re underneath the underbelly, but you don’t realize how divided the country is until you [take a closer look at them].
Now, this season deals with all of those things because that’s what actually happened during that time. So, we’re tackling what was happening during that time, but we recognize what’s happening today. In effect, some of the speeches and some of the things that have been said during this period of time have engaged themselves with…our present, and [the show’s depiction of them is] honest.
We don’t pander to it. Those are the things that we were talking about in developing it. It just turns out that the country, because of all the circumstances, imploded on itself, to where people are willing to say, “No. No more. No justice, no peace.”
DEADLINE: It seems that you’ve been thinking about the themes the show is exploring for a long time. I know, for example, that you pursued a degree in “The Core of Conflict: Studies in Peace and Reconciliation” while at NYU, around 17 years ago.
WHITAKER: Yeah. I did conflict resolution training. I have an organization; it’s an NGO. We’re actively in five countries, and we just got three more. We’re in South Sudan, Uganda, South Africa, Cape Flats, Mexico. We even have a program inside the schools in LA. We’re working to train youths and people in conflict resolution, and to then train them to be entrepreneurs and businessmen in their communities, so they’re able to go into their communities, help them rebuild, and then make them prosperous.
So far, we’ve started about 150 businesses. We probably have dealt with about 1,300,000 people directly, as an organization. We are now being requested by even the UN and different people, for us to work with them. Most of the time, we’re on our own sites, because we have 14 community learning centers that we’ve built around the world.
So, this concept of conflict resolution is something that I live with all the time. I work with UNESCO and with the UN, Children and Armed Conflict. For the last 10 years, pretty much, our organization was in a war zone, working with the youth and child soldiers there, and we’re still there.
DEADLINE: Returning to Godfather of Harlem, what would you say you’ve most enjoyed about playing Bumpy Johnson?
WHITAKER: You know, he’s a very complicated guy. He was always a leader, I think. He wanted to be a lawyer. He tried to get into law school, they wouldn’t take him because of his color, and he ended up going into the only business that he had access to. He became kind of like a banker, but then at certain times, he’s a poet. He’s a master chess player. He’s a family man, a drug dealer, all of these things.
He’s a very complicated character who cares deeply about his family, yet has abandoned his daughter because of her drug addiction, which is another contradiction of the education of Bumpy. Getting to explore opiate problems, the power struggles, the fact that he’s close friends with Malcolm X and starts to awaken [politically]. It’s a lot to get a chance to play—and he is a murderer, too. I mean, it is true that he killed people. [Laughs]
DEADLINE: A teaser for the back half of Season 2 suggested that Whoopi Goldberg will soon be making an appearance. What can you tell us about that, and where the show is headed?
WHITAKER: [Whoopi] came in for a moment. Method Man comes in for quite a bit. Annabella Sciorra comes in as Joe Bonanno’s wife. [Justin] Bartha comes in and there’s a really big storyline, the [Robert] Morgenthau storyline. He comes in and does a great job.
The storylines are going to keep putting the pressure on; the government’s going to keep putting the pressure on. Me and the Italians are at odds. They’re wanting to put another sanction on my life. Me and Chin kind of have a falling out, and then there’s a fun question of, which one of the mobsters would be willing to kill them all? I don’t want to tell all the stories, but those are pretty good hints. [Laughs]
DEADLINE: David Fincher’s Panic Room and Amy Heckerling’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High are hitting on major anniversaries next year. What memories come up for you, when you think back on your time with those directors and those projects?
WHITAKER: I loved working with David, you know? I think he’s a brilliant filmmaker, and there’s kind of a little story because I had written a script in college and this company, Propaganda Films, was offering to buy the script. I ended up directing music videos for them, and my first music video was “Thanks for My Child” by Cheryl Pepsii Riley. In order for me to be able to do it, they had to assign someone who would oversee, and David was the person that was assigned to oversee my very first music video. I went and shot it, and he came by and game me the thumbs up.
It’s cool because I think I’ve worked with so many different types of filmmakers, from the Robert Altmans to the Oliver Stones, Scorseses, Eastwoods, and I think that David has a grasp of storytelling and film and…I don’t want to say the technical side. [But] I think he’s able to use [that] to bring out great storytelling, to zero in on something really well, and I really liked working with him. He was telling me how, “You’re kind of like Spencer Tracy or something,” and I was like, “Okay.” [Laughs]
When I did Fast Times, I was just a kid. That was the first movie I did, and I was kind of into my character. Sean [Penn] was really into his. It started a lot of our careers off, and Amy was cool. The only odd thing about that was that I’ve always been kind of big because I used to play football. At the time when they cast me in that, I was so skinny, so thin, and so in order to play the part, I had to gain all the weight back. [Laughs] But I mean, I think the movie turned out.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about the projects you have coming up next? I know that you’re starring in Liesl Tommy’s Respect, and in Gareth Evans’ film Havoc…
WHITAKER: Oh, yeah. Havoc’s cool. [Laughs] I’m about to do Havoc.
In Jennifer Hudson’s Respect, I play her father, C.L. Franklin, who was a Svengali type preacher who developed this style of preaching called hooping. He was a really unique man; he was driving her. It was a strange relationship at times because of his control, and it caused him to break at times. He was also a civil rights activist because he was very close friends with Martin Luther King, and actually the first time that the speech “I Have a Dream” was done was in Detroit, in a march there before Washington. That was a thing that C.L. organized, and he was an interesting character to play. It was quite difficult. He was a slightly volatile man.
But yeah, those are the two movies. I play a guy who’s a governor in Havoc. My son is ultimately taken, and there’s a lot of things around that.
DEADLINE: I’ve seen you may also be reteaming with Godfather of Harlem’s Vincent D’Onofrio on a film called A Fall from Grace, which also stars David Lynch. Is there any truth to that?
WHITAKER: No. [I think] Vincent might be doing it. That would be a cool one. David Lynch offered me a job in a film once. But I had met him. He’s an interesting guy. He’s so different than you’d expect. He seems so quiet and Midwestern-like, you know? I mean, it’s probably from his meditation because he’s deep into mindfulness.
No, yeah. That’s a rumor. I’ll check it out though. [Laughs]