How Forest Whitaker Is Changing Hollywood
The star of “Godfather of Harlem”—and the last Black man to win the Best Actor Oscar—is helping shape the industry on both sides of the camera.
When Chloé Zhao made history as the first woman of color—and only the second woman ever—to win the Best Director Oscar for Nomadland, it brought joy to the heart of Forest Whitaker. Six years earlier, Whitaker took a chance on Zhao in producing Songs My Brothers Taught Me, her feature directorial debut about Lakota Sioux youths on a reservation in South Dakota. And over the past decade-plus, he—along with his producing partner Nina Yang Bongiovi—has quietly helped shepherd a number of first-time filmmakers of color, such as Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station), Boots Riley (Sorry to Bother You), and of course Zhao.
And Whitaker has done all this while balancing an impressive film and television career of his own. The 59-year-old screen legend has featured in some of the most memorable films of the past four decades, from Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Platoon, to Bloodsport and The Crying Game, to Arrival and Black Panther, and won the Best Actor Oscar for his unforgettable turn as Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland, the last Black man to take home the honor more than 14 years ago. Whitaker’s transformation into the volatile “Butcher of Uganda” is all the more staggering when you speak to the gentle, soft-spoken actor, as I did on a recent afternoon.
The occasion for our talk is the return of Godfather of Harlem, the Epix series that sees Whitaker’s crime boss Bumpy Johnson navigate the treacherous terrain of 1960s New York City, rubbing shoulders with Malcolm X, racist cops, and ruthless Italian mobsters. In its second season, Bumpy has formed a complicated alliance with mafioso Vincent “The Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) while evolving into a community civil rights leader with the guidance of Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), who’s run afoul of the Nation of Islam.
The Daily Beast spoke with Whitaker about his extraordinary life and career from London, where he’s currently quarantining prior to shooting a “top-secret project.”
Before we get into Godfather of Harlem, which I really enjoy, I wanted to talk to you about the Oscars since they just happened. You’re the last Black person to win Best Actor—14 years ago for The Last King of Scotland. Since then, only seven Black men have been nominated for Best Actor out of 70 people. And it’s not just men—only one Black woman has won Best Actress in the last twenty years, and only 7 Black women have been nominated for Best Actress out of 100 nominees during that time. These are pretty eye-opening statistics.
It’s been a struggle in the past to be represented fairly. I would say this year was really unique. There were several people [of color] nominated for Best Actor, and obviously Daniel [Kaluuya] won the award for Best Supporting Actor. Also, you had Chloé Zhao win for Nomadland. Hopefully, it’s a statement of the change that will continue to happen. I was really pleased to see Daniel win because he’s a talented actor. We’ll see stories get more complex, and people get more confident about allowing us to see a more cosmopolitan world where people of color are not only existing but flourishing. Things are moving. When I was a kid there was just Sidney Poitier—and not just at the awards, but to play leading roles in the cinema at all, it was just usually one at a time. Now, there are large numbers of artists of color that are working.
I’m part-Asian so it was nice to see some decent representation at this year’s Academy Awards, but from a viewer’s standpoint, I was frustrated with the format changes. They rejiggered the order to have Best Actor be last in order to seemingly close the ceremony on Chadwick Boseman receiving the award—only it didn’t work out that way. It struck me as a cynical move to even reorder the Oscars around Boseman.
I mean, the whole event was a unique one this year, you know? There was some representation that hadn’t happened before with women as well, with Minari and Chloé winning Best Director. We have to also be sure to celebrate some of the things that are shifting because clearly there are shifts occurring, but it doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to be done—and to work toward. Parasite won last year, too. We have to acknowledge that these are hopefully the faces of tomorrow, and with the social movements and social consciousness that’s going on, as well as the mandate that the Academy has set up about how diverse films have to be or they won’t be considered, it’s an unusual time.
People are going to get to see stories that really relate to them and allow them to have their piece of identity represented in these stories. That’s what we have to see. We saw two Black women nominated for Best Actress. We need to push the trend forward in a celebratory way when it comes to our artists. Chloé is a great artist—I produced her first film, Songs My Brother Taught Me, which was a Native American piece dealing with the youth on a reservation. We have to continue to tell these stories. There’s a long way for us to go, but we’re moving forward.
It does seem like we’re moving forward, but at the same time, we’re only a couple years removed from Green Book winning Best Picture, which many considered to be a pretty regressive film.
I understand that. You’re talking about the stories, and I think it’s really important that people are now investing in stories of people of color—Blacks, Latinos, all of them. Hopefully, people will continue to invest in stories that allow people to tell their stories, that have a really strong point of view, and that shows the humanity and depth of the lives of people of color. That’s what’s necessary.
With Godfather of Harlem, what attracted you to the character of Bumpy Johnson?
There’s a couple of things to look at, Marlow. I was interested that we could do it in a certain time period—in the ‘60s, when he knew Malcolm X—in order to reflect some of the things that were going on inside our country, with the civil rights movement, politics, the Italian crime families. I get to play a character that’s been played many times before, but at a different time in his life and with a lot of depth in a series where you see him as a mobster and a drug dealer, but also as a chess master, as a family man, as a killer, as a businessman, as a banker. He’s got a lot of sides that we’re trying to project out, and he becomes the eyes into this time.
He is a whole fascinating mess of contradictions.
There’s this theme: the American Dream by any means necessary. I said that to one of the executives, that it’s him trying to rise up any way he knows how, and when he gets there, he’s sanctioned to be killed by the Five Families. We get to see him dealing with his wife, his daughter, his granddaughter, and the love and depth of those relationships, along with the rough side. We get to see the time and the period. There’s a big schism and separation in the country, as Bumpy faces racism from the Italians and the police, and now we’re seeing the reverberations of that happen. Malcolm X is Bumpy’s friend, and he starts to educate him more. In real life, it’s true that Bumpy Johnson did do a sit-in at a police station that he helped organize.
Just maybe didn’t kidnap the police chief’s family at the same time.
[Laughs] That’s true! That’s true.
Chazz Palminteri stars in the series as a mob boss, and I gotta ask: Did you ever attend Limelight nightclub in the ‘80s when Chazz was a bouncer there?
[Laughs] No! No, I didn’t. He’s talked about those things. He tells a good story. He did ask me out to dinner one day, and I got to go out to his restaurant with him, and it was really something to see them all be like, “Chazz!” And it was really good food, too!
Going to an Italian restaurant with Chazz Palminteri must be quite an experience. I’m assuming it’s an Italian restaurant, which may be an unfair assumption to make.
[Laughs] It was an Italian restaurant.
I read an interview where you said that you got so into the character of Idi Amin on The Last King of Scotland that you even started dreaming as him. Have you started dreaming as Bumpy Johnson?
No. He’s affected me though. I was worried because sometimes I’d look in the mirror and see the energy still there. If you work on something deeply enough and you surrender to it, it almost changes your molecules. Your face starts looking different and feeling different, and I think, “I don’t want to be that!”
What sort of dreams were you having as Idi Amin? Were they more like nightmares?
Yeah… It wouldn’t always be dark. A lot of times, it was telling people things I need to do or almost like a party. Sometimes, it would be an image of him riding on the Nile. They wanted me to talk to the press [about the film], and I kept saying, “It isn’t really the right time,” because I’d convinced myself so deeply about the way he thought, so if you asked me a question, I would be answering like him. It became a problem when it ended up in the London Times—some of the opinions were pretty strong. I went so deep inside of it that at one point I started to believe that English wasn’t my first language. The director had to ask me to stop speaking in Kiswahili because I would be improvising in Kiswahili in a scene, and he’d say, “People aren’t going to understand you,” and I’d say, “The people of Uganda will.” [Laughs] He really caught me. There have been a few times that I’ve been caught.
Was Bird another film that caught you?
That was another. When I was dying in Bird, I hadn’t slept for a number of days because I knew I was going to be dying, so I laid on the couch in the scene, and then all of a sudden, I guess I fell asleep. And this guy was waking me up and he was smiling, and he looked like a nice guy, so I said, “Hey, what’s going on?” And I looked over and saw the cameras, and thought, “Oh, we’re filming.” I was living in it for a minute or two.
That was one of your two takes for Clint Eastwood. And then there’s David Fincher, who you worked with on Panic Room. He’s like 70 takes.
[Laughs] Going to extremes! I think 26 would be an average, probably. But I have to say, in David’s defense, he’s a perfectionist. And actually, he was the first person who supervised me as a filmmaker. When I was young, I used to direct music videos. The first one I did was Cheryl Pepsii Riley’s “Thanks for My Child,” about a single mother. I was working at Propaganda Films, and in order to have me do it, they had to have someone guarantee it. David just came in, said, “Looks like it’s going well,” and did it.
And that was some years before Strapped. You mentioned Bird, which was your first major leading role, and I remember hearing that your time on The Color of Money was rather strange—that you were treated in sort of a patronizing way on set—even though Pauline Kael would later sing your praises for the role.
There was originally someone else cast in the part, and they fired them because they couldn’t play pool. They asked me if I’d be willing to fly myself out to Chicago to audition for Scorsese, and obviously I had great admiration for a filmmaker. I was lucky that the audition was two weeks away, so I had time to practice at pool. When I got there, Scorsese said, “Before we see you act, let’s go see you play.” I had to play this 9-ball champion in pool, and he cast me in the part. But I wasn’t really included. I was sitting in the back when they were all rehearsing, and it was one of those moments where you felt you were kind of touching your dreams, but it was a little off. I remember having a disagreement [with Scorsese] where they wanted me to do the last line of the scene as a question, and I kept saying, “It’s not a question, it’s a statement.” I didn’t get to feel involved, or like I was included. But I was a day player.
You were also in Bloodsport. Did you know that’s Donald Trump’s favorite movie?
Yup. There was a profile of Trump written in the '90s, and in it they say that Trump’s favorite movie is Bloodsport—only he doesn’t watch the whole movie but just fast-forwards to the scenes where they’re beating the shit out of each other.
That was cool with Jean-Claude Van Damme. It’s not like the fight games in Enter the Dragon, but you did see a lot of diverse styles, and it’s kind of nice to see some of the guys do their thing. That movie must have been really successful.
Do you still get a nice Bloodsport check every once in a while?
[Laughs] I don’t know!
You should, man. That thing gets watched all the time. To go back to Godfather of Harlem for a second, is the show moving toward the Nation of Islam assassinating Malcolm X? Because it seems to be heading in that direction and is certainly something that a lot of people believe happened.
Um… I believe we’ll be showing different ways he’s being surveilled and stuff like that, but we haven’t made the decision to make that kind of statement right now. What we will explore is Malcolm starting his own mosque and going off to Mecca.
I remember watching an interview with you years ago where you briefly touched on how you’d had your own run-ins with gangs as a kid growing up in Compton. Your mother was a teacher, and apparently there was a problem with a local gang, and you had to be moved to a different school?
Yeah. I lived in Carson, so on the Carson-Compton line, and I had to go to school in Compton. I had seen the birth of the gangs in South Central, and for whatever reason, when I was in junior high one of them got it into their head to throw a football at me or something and it hit me, and I exchanged words with them. Then it became a situation where they were all going to be waiting for me after school, and it got dangerous. They told my mom it was going to happen, and so my mom moved me to a different school. And at that time, I was even training [in martial arts] a lot with a guy named Danny Inosanto, but I was only a forced fighter—I only fought when people forced it upon me, although unfortunately because of my size, that happened quite a bit.
And you’re a black belt in kenpō.
I studied Jeet Kune Do with Danny, and then studied kenpō, and then went back to kali, which is more of a mixed martial art, and then Muay Thai. I also played around with Sambo, a Russian martial art.
Wow, that’s impressive. You know, you’ve been in a lot of great films but there’s one big outlier, and that’s Battlefield Earth. Do you feel like John Travolta sold you a false bill of goods to rope you into this weird Scientology movie?
It was written by L. Ron Hubbard, so… Me and John were friends—our family were friends, and our kids played together—and John asked me if I wanted to do the movie. This is an odd story, but one of the first times I remember ever saying lines was in a speech class where I did this scene from The Island of Doctor Moreau. It’s this speech where he says, “I am not an animal… I’m a man!” so I had a fun thing around playing something like that. It was the opportunity to do some different kind of work and support my friend. They didn’t have the funds. I don’t know if it’s a philosophical movie or an exploration of a religion or tradition, but it seemed like they didn’t know whether it should just be grassroots down-and-dirty, or like a large science-fiction movie, which it wasn’t. To make us tall, they’d just have us stand on these pieces of wood, you know? When I analyze the movie, it seems like the biggest problem was they couldn’t manage that decision. But I wasn’t in the inner chamber; I just came to do a part.
I’ve done a lot of reporting on Scientology, and that film always did strike me as a metaphor for Scientology and its war with psychiatry. You have the evil alien Psychlos who’ve enslaved mankind, and then the men rebelling against them. Because Scientologists have an extreme aversion to psychiatry.
Ah, OK. I see where you’re coming from.
On a more celebratory note, Waiting to Exhale is a classic. I feel like every other day I see that incredible meme of Angela Bassett strutting away from the burning car.
Angela’s amazing in it. She was amazing. I was really fortunate to get those ladies to do it. I had to convince the studio to give me $13.5 million to make the movie and had to go in and get some extra funds, and they did it. It really moved on word of mouth, and at the time, $67 million was a lot to make for a movie—and particularly films of color, since there weren’t many. It really opened the door for Black female bonding movies and this life that these Black women were living, with the romances and the loves and the hates and the losses. Afterwards came Soul Food and all the other films.
OK, so this might be a BS rumor, but I heard that you turned down the role of Sawyer on Lost to direct First Daughter. Is that true?
You know, everybody says that to me. Yeah, I think so. They wouldn’t let me out of my stuff. There was something else I tried to get out of to do this other movie, and they wouldn’t let me. Don Cheadle and Terrence Howard were in it. It was a political-social piece, but I can’t remember the name…
Yeah, Crash. Originally, they had asked me to play the character that Terrence plays.
I’d also heard that you were planning a sequel to Waiting to Exhale prior to Whitney Houston’s passing.
We had talked about it but we weren’t deep into it. But we definitely were talking about whether we wanted to reprise it. It certainly was a reprisable film, and I think people would have liked to see what these women were doing next. It was such a tragedy when Whitney died—and when she did, it didn’t feel right [to make a sequel].
Another film of yours that I remember vividly is Fruitvale Station. I remember seeing it at Sundance and being blown away by what Ryan and Michael did. And I was reminded of the film recently with the police killing of Daunte Wright, because the cop used the same ridiculous excuse as the Oscar Grant case, saying they confused their gun for their taser.
It’s been going on for so long. I have to say, one thing that this show [Godfather of Harlem] does do, and that we focused on before the George Floyd tragedy happened, is it does hold up a mirror to these problems and issues. The show ends on the Harlem riots, and the Harlem riots started because police shot this 15-year-old James Powell, and that started the riots. Some of the words from activists on the show will sound familiar since we actually borrowed some as far as these people speaking truths, because they’re as relevant to that time as they are to today. It’s been going on forever and ever.
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles, did you ever had any tense run-ins with the police?
I’ve had quite a lot, actually, since coming up as a kid and being profiled on the sidewalk. I had a bad incident when I was bringing my kid home from the hospital, of being pulled out of my car and accosted.
When you were bringing your kid home from the hospital?
Yeah. I was just parked at the corner illegally. I didn’t have a bank account at the time, and I was trying to cash a check at the check-cashing place so was parked at the corner, and they came over to the car and started reaching into my glove compartment, and so I got irate and stuff. Things like that.
That’s crazy. I’m so sorry that happened. I don’t have the same perspective as you, but it must be a mindfuck to see these people who we pay to protect us as this menacing presence.
Of course. It makes you react to sirens differently, or when a car goes by you feel there’s some sort of danger. It’s a sad thing that happens.
You’ve had such a remarkable career. I mean, you were in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Vision Quest, The Color of Money, Platoon, Bloodsport, Bird, The Crying Game, Good Morning, Vietnam, and that was just over a ten-year period early on.
I got to work with Robert Altman in Prêt-à-Porter and play a fashion designer. There have been so many different types of filmmakers and so many great stories. I’m just looking to grow. I think, “What can I learn now? How can I grow?” And that’s guided my career, to find that connection between people, and to understand myself better through that connection.