This is a true story so please, pay attention. If you live in Los Angeles you know how it feels to have the ground beneath your feet rumble, move ever so slightly. At first—if you recall—it’s like your entire body “hears” it or rather “knows it” before you feel it but feel it, you do. Hold that image in your memory as I continue.
Many years ago, I was sitting inside the back office of the production office for the movie “Chasing Papi,” a romantic comedy aimed at the Latinx generation and directed by Linda Mendoza. I was typing something of no consequence when I felt that aforementioned rumble and since Earthquakes are part of the Cali experience, I thought nothing of it … except it continued. When I finally looked up, standing in the doorway was a happy, grinning Forest Whitaker, the executive producer of the aforementioned film. He knew my name (how, I don’t know, this was our first meeting) and thanked me for being the unit publicist for the film (no, thank you $) and I remember that I barely spoke because I had just witnessed what other people had told me about Mr. Whitaker and that was the he “had the power” — a strong vibration that could be felt and maybe even measured. I had been told he was “special” and in our Latino and African-American communities those of us who understand the power of spirit, know exactly what I witnessed. Forest Whitaker has power.
Here is an edited conversation with Forest Whitaker about EPIX’s new series “Godfather of Soul”.
LOS ANGELES SENTINEL: How did ‘Godfather of Harlem’ come to life?
FOREST WHITAKER: I was a part of this when it was an idea. Then we (partner Nina Yang Bongiovi) hired show-runners Chris (Brancato) and Paul (Eckstein) and they are doing a great job. As we were doing the research, we were bringing in issues and thoughts that would be affecting the community and make people want to talk and discuss. We knew the historical issues would be our touchstone points throughout. In the next season, it will also be our touchstones throughout. Part of it is looking at the relevance and where it rests today. We are seeing some of the same issues today. And not just the opioid crisis, but also issues on brutality and the sort of polarization that Malcolm [X] was talking about. In one episode, we see Malcolm facing off with the head of the Nazi party facing off talking about the Nazi party, feels that they have a lot of things in common in their philosophies and their beliefs. It’s interesting to start to explore that and start to talk about this today.
LAS: Harlem’s Bumpy Johnson has been dead for 51 years. He was known for his generosity to many members of the African-American community in Harlem along with his violence. How did you craft the walk, talk, and command of such a big figure in Harlem’s history?
FW: (chuckle) I thought of him more like a businessman. I kind of portrayed him like a banker. I didn’t give him over to street swagger. He has that because he’s so confident. He knows exactly what he wants to do. He’s very powerful in that way. I was walking a line of restraint, and the things are so volatile that I am dealing with because that was life. He was born into this. You try to balance this somewhat insane violence. It’s always a challenge to play somebody legendary.
LAS: Would you describe Bumpy Johnson as a man who felt that he had a duty?
FW: Duty’s not a bad word. Duty to his family first and that expounds out to the community. It’s interesting because it’s an exploration of his education in a way, too. He’s a mobster. He’s been a mobster since he’s been working with Madam Sinclair. He’s been working in numbers and with drug dealing for so long, and I think he has to look at the family issues though his daughter who is a heroin addict and a street prostitute. He has to face to consequences of dealing drugs. He’s trying to figure out, can he fix this? He use to look at drugs as a commodity but that commodity is destroying the things that are dearest to him. He has to make some considerations. This is an education of Bumpy Johnson, in that respect.
LAS: Were you aware of the connection between Bumpy Johnson and Malcolm X?
FW: No. I was not completely aware of the connection between Malcolm and Bumpy Johnson. That was something that I was learning as we were researching to get ready to do the project. And it grew and grew and grew and grew.
LAS: I can imagine the excitement in the discovery. A lot of levels for the writers to explore, yes?
FW: Yes. That was interesting to me on several levels. I think one is when people are trying to rise in a community where they feel like they have no options, what are their choices to be able to be successful. In another, what these two different men with different philosophies are doing in their minds, they uplift themselves.
LAS: Copy that.
LAS: Let’s talk about the actors in this series. I mean OMG. I mean, Mr. Whitaker did your team put their foot in this or what?
FW: (laughing) Giancarlo Esposito is monstrous as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. I was telling him that the other day and I will tell it to him again! We are lucky to have all of the actors. It’s amazing. We are lucky.
“Godfather of Harlem” premieres September 29 on EPIX. Starring Forest Whitaker, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ilfenesh Hadera, Giancarlo Esposito, Nigel Thatch, Lucy Fry, Paul Sorvino, Rafi Gavron