Exclusive: Director Kevin Hooks Talks BET’s Madiba and Resurrecting ‘The White Shadow’

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Exclusive: Director Kevin Hooks Talks BET’s Madiba, His Longevity In The Film Business and Resurrecting ‘The White Shadow’
Posted by Wilson Morales

February 15, 2017

Airing tonight on BET is the finale of “Madiba,” the three-part, six hour saga starring Laurence Fishburne as Nelson Mandela with co-stars Orlando Jones, David Harewood and Terry Pheto as his wife Winnie Mandela. Director Kevin Hooks is the first African-American filmmaker to take on the story of Mandela.

MADIBA, based on two Mandela autobiographies, Conversations with Myself and Nelson Mandela by Himself, tells the most personal and comprehensive story of Mandela’s life, focusing on the man, and his innermost thoughts and fears as he fought and sacrificed for freedom to become an international icon.

For Hooks, who has worked for nearly 40 years as an actor, producer and director, this is his biggest project to date. As the son of actor Robert Hooks, Kevin Hooks was 14 years old when he received a “Best Newcomer” Golden Globe nomination for his acting performance in Sounder. After that, he played the title role in Aaron Loves Angela and later starred as Morris Thorpe in the TV classic The White Shadow and Carl Burke in He’s the Mayor. In recent years, busier as a director, Kevin Hooks has a long list of directing credits including The Good Wife, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Scorpion, Castle, Lincoln Heights, The Mentalist, and Prison Break. With films, he directed Strictly Business, Passenger 57, and Fled.

Blackfilm.com recently caught up with Hooks as he spoke about Madiba, his longevity in the film business and possibly bringing The White Shadow back to TV.

How did the Nelson Mandela project come to you?

Kevin Hooks: You know actually the process was pretty simple in terms of how it came to me. My agents were contacted by Blue Ice Pictures and in particular Lance Samuels was our executive producer and president of Blue Ice and told me that they were putting together a six hour miniseries on the life of Nelson Mandela and they wanted to have me read the first four of the six hours. They sent me the script. I read them immediately and obviously was very, very compelled by the scripts but also by the format. The six hours I felt really would give us an opportunity to dig a little deeper into this story. At that point a meeting was set up and we sat down and chatted and really kind of hit it off immediately. It was clear that we were going to be able to work together so I told them absolutely I’d be interested in it and a deal was made and I was on the project thankfully.

Did you have a hand in casting?

Kevin Hooks: Yeah, absolutely. That was one of the first things that we began to discuss when I was hired, when I came to the project. At the top of my list really, it’s really ironic but you know at the top of my list was Laurence Fishburne when I started thinking about people that I felt could really do this role and bring the gravitas to it that was necessary. Laurence was right at the top of my list. We’d worked together before. We’ve been friends since we were literally teenagers and I thought this would be a good project for us to collaborate on and we got in touch with him and he was interested in it. So that came together as well.

In the rest of the casting we talked about all of the roles even down to the day players in South Africa so it was sort of an overwhelming process because there was so many roles but yeah, I was involved in all of that.

Did you think of Laurence because of his visibility and commercial appeal as opposed to getting a name from South Africa that would give it more credibility?

Kevin Hooks: Well, I think that we were, I mean I know for sure that the casting choices or I should say the casting options were open to Americans, to Brits, to South Africans and I think we really, really wanted to cast as many South Africans in the piece as we possibly could. It’s one of those things. It comes down to familiarity. For me it did. As I said, I have a relationship with Laurence. I’ve worked with him before. We work well together and for me as a director of the piece, it was really important for me to sort of know what I was getting and to really sort of have that shorthand with my lead actor. That was something that for me, I think won out ultimately.

I was full aware of the fact that there have been many people who have played Nelson Mandela I think in major projects, none of which have been South African. I think that’s unfortunate. That’s why I was really happy when we were able to cast the first South African actress to play Winnie Mandela in Terry Pheto. We did everything that we could possibly do and for me it was about the shorthand I had with Laurence. That was an important part of the process.

Was most of the research or your directing done so that it represents something new or something different that wasn’t seen in those previous films?

Kevin Hooks: Yeah, absolutely. You know I’d love to say that I watched all of those other films as a part of my research in my process. I had seen them certainly over the course of time but one of the things that I’ve found for me is that I love to sort of approach my work at the beginning of my process is to really sort of rely more on my own instincts and my own information about the subject. That being said, yeah we absolutely were aware of that.

It was very important for me to do that, for all of us to do that really. I think one of the things that took priority for me and one of the things that was almost mandated by Mr. Mandela when he was approached by Lance Samuels about doing the project, he made it clear that he wanted people to understand that it wasn’t just him. That there were many, many people who contributed to the liberation of South Africa and he wanted their story to be a part of this piece.

So we populated it with those relationships. At the core of it obviously is Nelson and Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu who I think were the closest of the group but beyond that, Joe Slovo, Ruth First, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada, all of these people were a part of that process and very important to it. So that was something that we really wanted to do.

Secondarily I think that the other relationship that I think resonates really, really well in this piece and something that has never really been told in the way that we’ve presented it is his relationship with his son who unfortunately was killed in a car accident. I think we really tried to build that relationship and get more of a sense of what their relationship was in terms of Nelson being constantly involved with ANC work and not necessarily being as available as a father when he was needed at times. I think that exploring that and exploring the guilt that he felt upon hearing of his son’s death is something that hasn’t really been told before. So those were the kinds of things that I thought we could build upon in six hours. The relationships and populating the story with the many people who contributed to the movement.

As a director is this your biggest project to date?

Kevin Hooks: No doubt. Yeah. I have never directed six hours worth of material before and to have a story and a canvas as large as Nelson Mandela and the liberation of South Africa, it’s just an overwhelming and very daunting idea. I think yeah, without a doubt it was my biggest challenge as a director. Physically, mentally and both. But again, I sort of compared it to climbing Mount Everest which I have not done by the way but it’s one of those things that you don’t know what the journey is going to deliver but you are on it and you know that it’s a worthwhile journey and at the end there is a tremendous sense of accomplishment and self satisfaction.

Was there any part of the film that was the most toughest to film or the easiest?

Kevin Hooks: Well, I wouldn’t say that any of it was easy because it’s such an emotional story and doing it in South Africa, in Johannesburg, in a number of places where the actual history took place was challenging but we also had thankfully some very, very passionate and proud South Africans involved in the project that really fueled and energized us in a way that made us more comfortable during the process so that was a good thing. But it was never easy.

I would say that for me it was very difficult recreating some of the rallies and some of the significant social injustices that took place like Sharpeville. The Sharpeville Massacre was one that was very difficult to recreate because the reality of what happened on that fateful day strikes you very, very hard. Those are the kinds of things that really I think were difficult for all of us because it was just something that felt very wrong and very inhumane. Sometimes there are moments when you’re recreating those things when you were just hit with reality in a way that you can’t anticipate. I think those were the hard days for us.

Before I go back to Madiba, you’ve been working for a long period of time. Last year was the 25th anniversary of your film ‘Strictly Business,’ which starred Halle Berry. It’s amazing that it’s been more than 25 years that you’ve been doing this as an actor, producer, director. Talk to me about being in this business and what it takes to stay in it.

Kevin Hooks: I had a conversation with a friend not that long ago and we were talking about just this point, this idea of longevity in this industry, particularly as a black filmmaker. I said something that I caught myself off guard and that was that I realized that this year I will have been in this industry for a half century. That was just striking. I couldn’t believe I was saying that. That’s a long time obviously.

I think in order to do that, a lot of things have to happen. Obviously you have to really work at your craft. You have to stay on top of it. You have to deal with the politics of the industry and you have to get lucky. All of those things sort of have to happen and I’ve been fortunate and blessed enough to have my father, Robert Hooks who is a tremendous mentor for me and in influence on everything that I’ve done during my career. I think with him as a starting point I kind of had a leg up on a lot of those things but I’ve also worked with some people who have been able to see, have an insight into what it’s like for a struggling black actor.

For instance Bruce Paltrow came to me and asked me if I was interested in writing or directing in the first season of the White Shadow. Stephen Bochco came to me at a certain point and asked me if I would be interested in producing a show with him which I had not done up to that point. So that’s where the luck comes in but I truly believe that luck is really the equivalent of preparation so I think that those are the key things, is to really be prepared to work hard. You just have to have a thick skin because not everything is going to go your way and there are going to be situations that are blatantly not to your advantage, to your benefit and you have to find a way to work through those moments and stay positive and keep at it. Again as I said I’ve been tremendously fortunate and blessed to have had opportunities in this industry and been prepared for them so I’m very thankful. Very thankful.

What do you make of Prison Break coming back?

Kevin Hooks: I’m excited about it. I was not involved because I was doing Madiba at the time and they did ask me if I could come back and direct a couple of episodes. I’m excited. It’s unfortunate that I was not able to rejoin the people that I’m so close to and worked with for so long but I’m really happy for them and I’m excited to see what the story is because if I remember correctly we’ve killed Michael Scofield at the end of season four so it’s not a surprise that he’s back but I’m curious to know how that worked out. I guess we’ll find out in April.

Between TV Land and Netflix a lot of shows from yesteryear are starting to make comebacks. Do you think there’s a possibility they could do a modern show of The White Shadow?

Kevin Hooks: I’ve tried to explore that for years. Actually Baron Davis, the former NBA star who is a friend of the family, he and I tried to put something together which we thought was kind of a slam dunk idea. High school’s changed quite a bit since The While Shadow, the version of the White Shadow that we did in 1979 through ’81 and so it’s a difficult kind of story to tell now because times have changed and I think relationships between coaches and players and students and teachers are a lot different. So yeah, it would be great. I’m a little bit too old to play but I might be able to do an assistant coach thing but that would be fun.

With the passing of Kent Howard last year, do you still keep up with any of other guys?

THE WHITE SHADOW, 1978 – 1981.

Kevin Hooks: Yeah, I do occasionally. Thomas Carter and I trade notes from time to time. He sent me a very nice congratulatory note when Madiba was premiering a couple weeks ago. Erik Kilpatrick who’s been a dear friend of mine for years and years we stay in touch as well. Everybody’s busy. Tim Van Patten is one of the biggest directors in television now and has worked on The Sopranos and with Martin Scorsese on Boardwalk Empire so guys are busy and that’s great. But yeah, we try to keep in touch. It’s difficult though with people traveling and being all over the world working but we keep our eyes on each other so yeah, we’re there.

For those who haven’t caught the first two nights of Madiba and with one night to go, what’s a good reason to start catching up and watching the finale?

Kevin Hooks: I think that you know the American Constitution is under assault by an administration that prefers nationalism or prioritizes nationalism over human rights and I think that anyone that has even the slight bit of knowledge about Nelson Mandela’s story would be wise to catch the last part of this series because it’s sort of a chilling reminder of what can happen when a specific mindset sets in. I would encourage people to take a look.

What’s next?

Kevin Hooks: I did two episodes of a new series from Imagine and Ron Howard called Genius which is on NatGeo premiering in April. The first season is about Albert Einstein and it looks to be really interesting and educational and entertaining show so that will be the next thing that pops up on your TV set from me.

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