Epix’s new 10-episode crime series “Godfather of Harlem” stars Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as the infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson.
The story is inspired by Johnson who returned to 1960’s Harlem after a 10-year prison bid to find the neighborhood he once ran having been taken over by the Italian mob. Bumpy has to go up against the Genovese crime family to regain control.
The series also examines Bumpy’s unlikely alliance with Malcolm X – which happens just as Malcolm’s political rise is in the crosshairs of social upheaval and a mob war threatens to tear the city apart. The two join forces to manage the looming situation. In the trailer, Malcolm X says to Johnson, “You have guns, but I have an army.”
Nigel Thatch is playing Malcolm X for the second time, his first being in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. In each project, Thatch played a different facet of Malcolm X’s life. In Selma, it’s a post-Mecca Malcolm X whereas in Godfather of Harlem it’s 1963 around the time he had a rift with Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad over his extramarital affairs. His views were different and more radical at this time.
Whitaker also serves as executive producer of the project. He said he knew about Johnson from movies such as Hoodlum and American Gangster, but in taking on the project, he learned so much more about his life and impact on social justice in Harlem.
“I really didn’t realize his influence on the community,” said Whitaker, “I didn’t know about his family life, his connection to Malcolm X, and him going after our needs and our desires for a great life.”
He added that he hopes viewers can see the parallels to what’s happening in today’s current society and take action in their own lives.
The true-life historical points in the duo’s relationship do draw some dramatic license, but stuck as close to real-life events as possible by researching not only history books, but also included interviews with “surviving heirs” of the two.
Writer Chris Brancato shared “The entire goal was to keep the spirit of the time and the characters… we sought to put their attitudes and specific words in their mouths.”
Ifanesh Hadera said her role as Johnson’s wife Mayme isn’t the typical story of the wife spending all the money or being shocked and helpless when it’s time to go to war. She says Mayme was “gangster” in her own ways too. “She knew what she signed up for Hadera said.. “she did what she had to do to survive.”
There is also a soundtrack to the series, Swizz Beats is the music supervisor. There is a combination of music from the period and original music featuring John Legend, Rick Ross and DMX that will be available on Epic records.
Godfather of Harlem debuts on Sept. 29 at 10 p.m. on Epix.