From The Great Debaters To Black Panther: Catching Up With Denzel Whitaker

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From The Great Debaters To Black Panther: Catching Up With Denzel Whitaker
Posted by Wilson Morales

March 12, 2018

With Disney & Marvel’s Black Panther crossing over the $1 billion mark at the box office worldwide over the weekend, it’s safe to say that a lot of folks have seen the Ryan Coogler directed-film.

The story, described as a tale of black power and black pride in addition to its superhero themes, follows T’Challa as he is sworn in as king of Wakanda, a cloaked, technologically advanced nation in Africa that is home to the exotic metal vibranium, the source of Black Panther’s powers.

With the exception of Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, the film has virtually all-black cast — stars Chadwick Boseman stars as T’Challa/Black Panther alongside Lupita Nyong’o, Michael B. Jordan, Danai Gurira, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Florence Kasumba and Sterling K. Brown.

For those few who have yet to see the film, there are some familiar faces you may recognize from other projects. One of those actors is Denzel Whitaker, plays young Zuri and shares a scene or two with Sterling K. Brown.

For the record, he is NOT related to either Denzel Washington or Forest Whitaker, but he did do a film with the two of them, 2007’s The Great Debaters. Also starring in that film was Nate Parker and Jurnee Smollett-Bell. He appeared in the 2010 Wes Craven horror film My Soul To Take and in the 2011 John Singleton film Abduction. Whitaker has also done some episodic works for different TV shows such as FX’s Legit and CBS’ Blue Bloods.

With the ongoing success of Black Panther, caught up with Whitaker as he talked about his experience working on this film.

Actor Denzel Whitaker at the Los Angeles World Premiere of Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER at Dolby Theatre on January 29, 2018 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for Disney)

When did you get first brought on to this movie?

Denzel Whitaker: I got first brought on, let’s see, it was around Christmas time and I can’t remember if it was before or after Christmas but I had just wrapped a short project that I was working on, something I was directing myself. I remember I had the audition and it was like a thousand different things in one that I had to accomplish that day and the next day I was like, man, how am I gonna makes this in time? Got Black Panther audition but it’s two pages. What do I do with two pages? So I went to my coach and I kinda dove into the material and then I woke up the next day and I remember going to the audition, I did very well. It was weird ’cause the casting director had asked me if I wanted to say some special words to Coogler, which I went on tape and I just sorta poured my heart out how he was an inspiration to me as an up and coming filmmaker, even as an actor just how committed he was and how compassionate he was and everything that touched and I just sort of let that be.

And then I remember that in of itself that happened maybe October. So fast forward two months later, I think I didn’t get the role. I thought it was long gone and I get a call maybe around Christmas time. I’m chilling with my buddies, we’re working on another project and all of a sudden my agent calls me and he’s like, “Hey, I didn’t wanna tell you because I didn’t want you to get too excited but do you want to go to Atlanta at the top of the year and go work on a Marvel movie?” Yeah, we’ll be on a plane, what are you talking about? So that’s how I got roped into the process.

Marvel Studios’ BLACK PANTHER
Zuri (Forest Whitaker)
Credit: Matt Kennedy/©Marvel Studios 2018

Did you know the character you would be playing would be ironically played by Forest Whitaker and as we now know?

Denzel Whitaker: Right. That’s the one … You’re right, that’s the one funny God given thing that I did know. They told me I was playing young Forest and I was like, oh man, God loves his practical jokes, he’s hilarious. You know what I mean? ‘Cause it’s like, okay, second time around doing the Forest bit. My name, I’ve heard it my entire life with all Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker comparisons but also very excited about it, so.

Were they aware that you had worked with him before?

Denzel Whitaker: Oh yeah, they’re definitely aware of it. Everybody was aware of it and that’s what’s funny about it is just like, oh you know, you did it one time I just wanna make him young Forest again.

What was that feeling like not telling anyone you’re in Black Panther?

Denzel Whitaker: To be honest with you, because of my two pages and because of me knowing just how expansive these films get, I was worried the entire time my role was going to get cut. So, yes I had like a confidentiality clause that I signed and everyday I went to set I had to turn over my sides so that they could return those and to make sure I didn’t run off with any material or nobody in the hotel picked it up but me, myself, the entire year was like let me not even speak too loud to my personal peoples, my personal friends or what not ’cause I don’t want anything bad to happen with the role. So I was super quiet about the process to the point where even some of my best friends were like, “Yo, you didn’t tell me you had such a pivotal role.” Well, I didn’t know. I plain and simple didn’t know. I was kept in the dark and maybe that’s for the best.

How much of a fan have you been of Marvel comics prior to you just being in this movie?

Black Panther
Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa/Black Panther

Denzel Whitaker: I grew up on Marvel comics. Marvel comics is all I read growing up. Spiderman was my favorite superhero growing up, always loved, always loved Black Panther. I actually brought my action figure Black Panther to set with me. It traveled in my bag all the way to Atlanta when we were shooting. I remember when I was young like making little Wolverine X-man claws. Supehero genre has always been a thing to me. I remember watching the 90s animated series on Fox when it used to come on in the morning. I got limited edition comic books, go to Comic Con all the time so I’m geeking out ’cause I want to know what is this process like as a filmmaker now. How large does it get and how do they replicate these timeless characters with such detail, characters that basically myself and millions of others have grew up their entire lifetime.

And then you’re working opposite Sterling K. Brown, who’s the hottest guy right now on TV.

Denzel Whitaker: Phenomenal. Phenomenal. He’s so dedicated, he’s so locked in. First day he showed up we instantly started going over the characters. I think we were just doing rehearsals, it was blocking, we didn’t even start until the next day but he had so many questions and he was so prepared and then even off camera, so casual. So casual about it like it was nothing and then just hop right back into character. He shared a couple stories with me especially like his humble beginnings, just how he was on Broadway and Spielberg and a couple of other people had come up to him in a couple different plays that he had did and they were like, “Man, you changed my perspective on plays and you’re refreshing.” But then just things just weren’t working for him for a while so to see him now and especially I’d bringing it to him around This Is Us.

So I run into him then and with This Is Us he’s like, “Yo, I’m just proud and happy and thankful to be here,” because he’s put in so much leg work beforehand and so much and he’s paid his dues basically is what I’m trying to say for the longest. So I’m happy to see him winning.

Was there a period of time where everybody got together before the premiere or was it the premiere where everybody got to meet each other?

Denzel Whitaker: For me, the premiere was when I got to meet each other. I met some of them on set but everybody was flying in at different times and I think they had like one table read but even at the collective table read they had brought in people to fill some of the roles that weren’t either a, casted or just they weren’t available to schedule. So yeah I don’t we all really got together in one place until the premiere.

What does that say to you as an actor to be in a film that is being widely seen by the entire world?

Denzel Whitaker: I, A, don’t want to over think it and, B, I’m thankful for it. I don’t want to over think it because I think when you start thinking about that, you’re not thinking about the art, you’re thinking about oh, well, how is this effecting me or benefiting us or blah, blah, blah, it’s all the splash at that point. I’m just super thankful for the opportunity, I’m thankful for that our voices are being seen.

Not just my voice, our voices are being seen and our stories are being told and I think the most triumphant or the most triumphant achievement that we can take away from this is actually hearing those live accounts of young children coming out of the film, seeing themselves in the poster and saying, “I could be a king or I could be a queen.” I’ve heard these actual stories first hand from some of my mother’s friends who have kids and meeting kids when I go out in public and they recognize me and tell me how much they love the film. And seeing black images that I’ve just never seen on film or TV period. Iconic images of man and wife who love each other but they fight for their civilization. They hold it down, they celebrated royalty. This is the first time we’ve had an all black film basically where no one was on drugs.

Sharon Jones, Denzel Washington, Nate Parker, Forest Whitaker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker attend the reception for “The Great Debaters” New York Premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater on December 19, 2007 in New York City.
“The Great Debaters” New York Premiere – Reception
The Ziegfeld Theater
New York, NY United States
December 19, 2007
Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/

People will remember you, think Great Debaters and they say, “Oh, he was the third guy. There was Jurnee, Nate,” and there was you. You’ve been working here and there. How has it been for you as an actor? Have you been comfortable, still grinding it out or you’ve been getting work as they come along and you’re okay with it?

Denzel Whitaker: It’s part of the process. It’s all a journey. I think for me personally there was a little bit of lull coming out of the success of The Great Debaters. I did a couple films but I was also in a transitional period just pure body wise. I was young, becoming a man and I don’t even know if I had my own identity yet and then Denzel was very instrumental in my career as a director so I stepped behind the camera like tomorrow I have a video shoot.

I just finished a pilot presentation last week so I’ve been directing for, oh since 2011 at this point. 2011 and I credit a lot of that to Denzel Washington, Gavin O’Connor, Werner Herzog, different directors that I had the privilege of working with and then they sort of seen that spark within me, that curiosity that I had and they’re like, “Yeah, you should pursue it.” So I’ve been studying the craft and I think in between the time where I wasn’t acting as an actor I was fulfilling that other muscle in my body creatively so I’ve been okay. Everything is happening in its own process. There’s a couple lessons that I needed to learn as a man. I needed to grow up. So now it’s just like I’m paying my dues just like any other actor.

This is nice to have a platform where I can grow and people can see my face and I can express myself. But even then I see more. I want to experience more and hopefully this is something where people can remember like, “Hey, I remember that kid.” But also be, “But what has he been up to? Oh, he’s been doing that. Oh, word. He’s versatile.” That’s what I hope and pray out of this situation.

Did you get a chance to talk with Forest on set? 

Denzel Whitaker: It’s so funny. During Great Debaters, we talked about it just briefly, just trying to figure out who our family members might be and we kind of just left it at that. We could never really find an identifying family member that connected us so since then … When I saw him at the premiere that’s the first time I’d seen him again since The Great Debaters and it was like nothing really changed. I ran right into Forest and he’s just that lovable, very humble, spiritually grounded guy. As soon as I saw him, grabs me, gives me a hug, like “How you doing?” “Well, how are you doing?” It’s one of those so, we never really tripped up on the name thing, we kinda squashed that on Great Debaters and then it was like, oh okay, well, maybe our ancestors are.

What’s next for you?

Denzel Whitaker: Well, next up I have a film coming out next year called Cutthroat City. It’s with … It’s directed by RZA, it’s with Wesley Snipes, Terrance Howard,  Shameik Moore, Kia Johnson, Rob Morgan. It’s a mega cast and I’m thankful for that. Like I said, I’ve got a couple things in the works directing wise, doing a lot of music videos, short films, pilots, I’ve    basically been writing a lot trying to get my features off the ground. And then everything else is all exploration, whatever God wants to deal in my lap, I’ll take it.

What would you say to those who haven’t seen Black Panther yet, and what’s a good reason to see it now?

Denzel Whitaker: What’s a good reason? First of all, if you ain’t seen it yet, you’re just hatin’. If you ain’t seen it yet, you probably just anti-hype at this point but what I will say to get out and go see it is because it’s a powerful, powerful message. And it’s a story that hasn’t been told. It’s a story that not only my generation but generations before me have been wanting and longing for but it’s a story, even past the racial divide, it’s a story about morality. It’s about integrity, it’s about conflict within family, it’s about conflicts within identity. So I think all of those sort of, what would you call them? I guess all of those themes are very powerful and I think they can change people’s lives. If you just pick up on one of the themes from this film I think you’ll come away with a different perspective.

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