Acclaimed actor, director and producer Forest Whitaker returns to television this fall in Godfather of Harlem, a 10-episode series about famed Harlem mob boss Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson.
Johnson was a well-read career criminal originally born in South Carolina whose family moved to Harlem during his formative years. In the early 1930s he became the principal lieutenant to mob boss Stephani St. Claire, who was prominent in the numbers racket in Harlem. Johnson, nicknamed “Bumpy” for a large bump on his forehead, was beloved in Harlem for his generosity with the people.
Whitaker delivers an intense and introspective portrayal of the larger-than-life man, while also offering a unique perspective on some of the prominent players in Harlem who interacted with Johnson in his prime and colored his rich life story.
BET.com spoke with Whitaker, Nigél Thatch (Selma), Rafi Gavron (A Star Is Born), Lucy Fry (Bright, Mr. Church) Vincent D'Onofrio (Marvel’s Daredevil), Ilfenesh Hadera (She's Gotta Have It) and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy (Inpatent) about going back in time to recreate Harlem in the 1960s, and their reflections on Bumpy Johnson the man.
THE STAR: Forest Whitaker on the creation of the series:
Markuann Smith and James Acheson came to me with an idea that they wanted to do something about Bumpy Johnson and so I said yeah, let's explore it. And then we went and got Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein to write a script, and they became the producers and the show runners. Once we did that, myself and Chris went in to talk to Michael Wright [the president] at EPIX.
I started to explain to him how I wanted the music to surround the project, using music from the time inside the scenes and score to augment the mythic quality, but then using contemporary music to sort of surround it to place us in the place that everybody understood that it was relevant to them right there, that they would be in a space that they knew was true.
I think I was talking about a Chi-Lites song, "Have You Seen Her." You know how it starts off with this long talk: One month ago today... walks to the movies... maybe to the park...I have a seat at the same old bench to watch the children play... tomorrow is their future, but to me it's another day... I started talking about that, and relating it to rap, and then me and [Michael] started singing that particular song. It turns out that Michael Wright actually has his own band and he's a singer! So that discussion led to what he decided to do in the room, which was to buy this project and do 10 episodes.
Whitaker on preparing to play Bumpy Johnson:
I think the first part of it started with just the research, because we were getting the script ready. So, I started studying him, reading stuff about him, reading prison reports about him, looking at what his wife wrote about him -- you know, Mayme wrote a book -- and trying to get that on.
Then I came into New York and I started to interview some of the guys who worked with him, who were like mobsters alongside him, like Chisolm and Junebug and those guys. And then I went into Harlem and started interviewing people and then slowly he started to form. He was a chess player, he was a poet, and there were a lot of different things about his character that were very complicated. And then I just tried to let it all fall into place.
Whitaker on handpicking rapper/producer Swizz Beatz to score the series:
I think Swizz is a brilliant musician and artist and I think he understands how to bring elements together into a song, and we needed that. He created the whole album for the film. Every week there will be two new songs coming out from the show, and we needed somebody of his quality and caliber to be able to do it, and that has also an international understanding, a more wide-scoping understanding, to narrow it down to what we needed to be.
I gotta say, he more than delivered. He delivered an amazing album with real deep sensitivity and he's been there step by step-by-step. He brought in all of these artists together in the writing room to create songs, and it's been a joy working with him actually.
Nigél Thatch on revisiting the role of Malcolm X (Thatch previously played Malcolm in Ava DuVernay's Selma):
The script is basically what made me want to do it again. There was an extreme amount of this depth in not only Malcolm X, but in all the characters in the show. The relationship between Bumpy and Malcolm was an eye opener for me, and I'm sure it's an eye opener for a lot of people, because I had not recalled that relationship ever being mentioned before. I've learned a lot, not only about that relationship, but Harlem in the '60s -- it's been a bit of a history lesson.
Thatch on becoming Malcolm X:
I went to old video stores that had only VHS tapes and footage of Malcolm X and his speeches back in the day. I went on YouTube to find everything I could, I requested FBI documents, FBI files from the research specialists on the show. I had lots of conversations with Professor James Small, who was a consultant on the show. I listened to Malcolm X speeches at work all right up until the time we would shoot and say action, with the earphones in my head, just trying to embody as much of his cadence and essence as I [could] right up until the time we were ready to shoot.
What I learned is that Malcolm and I, there are a lot of similarities there in terms of the way we think. One way in particular was thinking for myself--even prior to playing Malcolm in Godfather of Harlem and Selma--it is important that you do the work, that you have your own thoughts for yourself, and not just be under someone else's ideas and thoughts. Oftentimes, people are too lazy to do the work -- even to think.
Vincent D'Onofrio/ “Vincent ‘Chin’ Gigante” on going back in time to explore race and power in this series:
It was hard. I'm not going to pretend that it wasn't hard playing the part. It's not an easy thing to play a racist. It's not easy in the context of our story. It's not easy associating yourself with that in any way, shape or form. It's heartbreaking. So, you break your heart a little bit every day when you play it. But you can't soften it up. You have to do it full out and you have to make the point.
Some days I went home with my stomach in knots, depending on what I did that day and how many times I had to say the "n" word or how many times I had to look at Forest in character and deal with him through Chin's eyes. But in the end, you want to achieve something. You want to tell the story correctly and service the story the best you can, and so I did my best trying to do that.
Lucy Fry/ “Stella” on Bumpy Johnson.
I had a very interesting talk with Forest when we were filming one of the scenes and learning about Bumpy Johnson as a poet. One of my favorite scenes is when he's talking to Malcolm X and they're saying that they both wanted to be lawyers, but then couldn't because of the systemic oppression of that time, so Bumpy was a gangster.
That was such an interesting part of it for me, just seeing how Forest brought so much subtlety and gentleness to this character, and that it's a means to an end... fighting against the system, and that violence is the only way at a certain point. I feel like the way that Forest played it with such subtlety brings a really interesting conversation in a way that I haven't really seen on television before from this perspective.
Rafi Gavron/ “Ernie Nunzi” on what he learned about Bumpy Johnson, the man:
I mean, he's a human. That's who Bumpy Johnson is to me now. And is he a gangster? I don't know. I know some gangsters out there who've got millions of dollars, they've got light skin and they're wearing suits. And they're in [the] corporate world. So, to me, it's just humanizing someone... there's a reason he's a hero in Harlem. It's not because he's a drug dealer, it's because he took care of his people, and that was what was really special.
I've always rooted for the underdog, and who am I to say why anyone's selling dope on a large level? Maybe I'd do that if I needed to at that time, and that was the only opportunity that I could find. S&%t, I'd turn it into an empire if I could. And that's what I got from it, and that's what Forest did. He's a human to me now, he's not "Bumpy Johnson." And I hope people take that away.
Ilfenesh Hadera/ “Mayme Johnson” on working the project:
Like most people involved in this project, I feel really attached to it for very personal reasons. Paul Eckstein, who is our executive producer and one of our writers, Bumpy Johnson put his aunt through college. And then you have Markuann [Smith], who is Margaret [Johnson's] godson.
I am a Harlem resident, lifelong. So, it's really a personal kind of pride to be part of this project, but to go back into the '60s and kind of learn a Harlem that I have never experienced before, another side of this place that's so familiar to me, has been really cool, informative, and a total learning process in a wonderful way. It's kind of what you hope for as an actor--to be given the opportunity to really delve into a world.
THE PLACE: HARLEM, USA
Gavron on Harlem:
Harlem is just an incredible place, and it's given us so much; culture, music, that revolution that we talk about, so it was just special being up there, and being welcomed into that community?! As I said, I came up on this music, so for me I'm like, 'Yo, I'm a part of this for a second!' And that was really special to me."
Thatch on Harlem:
Harlem in the '60s I wasn't really familiar with, so I've been learning a lot about Harlem in the '60s through this project. There's a Whole Foods now in Harlem. It's a lot more gentrified now, but it's still cool and jazzy, just the way that it was back then, but at the same time you feel those roots.
Antoinette Crowe-Legacy/ “Elise”
Harlem, thank you for the culture. Thank you for the music, for the politics and the history. Thank you for making part of America what it is today. It was such a melting pot of people who created so much and shaped who we are right now. So, thank you for that.
Godfather of Harlem premieres Sunday September 29 on Epix.
Photo Credit: David Lee/Epix