TV has a new godfather.
In Epix’s Godfather of Harlem, Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, 58, immerses himself in the early 1960s to portray infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson, who returns home to a new Harlem after a decade in prison. Inspired by true events, the new series follows Johnson’s mission to regain control of his old streets from Vincent Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) and the Genovese crime family, as well as his relationship with rising associates Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito).
Ahead of returning to TV, Whitaker (The Shield, Empire) talked to EW about why the series feels so relevant today, what he learned about Johnson and Malcolm X, and Godfather being about achieving “the American dream, by any means necessary.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This isn’t the first time Bumpy Johnson has been depicted, so why did you feel he deserved further exploration?
FOREST WHITAKER: There’s some really exciting things about this particular incarnation of Bumpy Johnson. I thought it was very interesting to look at criminality, the civil rights movement, and politics all in the same prism of the day. At the same time, some of the protests that were going on during that movement about human rights, profiling, violence and brutality done by the government, these are issues being explored by different groups today. In this way, we were able to put a mirror up to what was happening.
Considering you’re dealing with many real-life figures, such as Bumpy, Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, how closely will you stick to the true history of events?
There’s been such a great deal of research and story lines developing themselves out of current incidents that have happened, but everything is not down to the letter historically accurate. Many of the incidents that you will see, including the relationship with Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali and the struggles that were going on and Bumpy coming out of prison, are all based on historical fact. There was a lot of research that was done to try and maintain some sort of connection to the actual facts. And then it’s “inspired by” as well, but we tried to stay as true to the story as we could and the actual facts are constantly being brought up and serving as motivating actions.
Tell us about the relationship between Bumpy and Malcolm X, which is one of the major facets of Godfather.
Bumpy’s relationship with Malcolm X, his friendship there, is something I hadn’t been aware of from the past iterations and many of the other things that I had read. They were both trying to bring equality in some way to their own world. Malcolm X wanted to influence Bumpy and saw some of his qualities and thought they could be turned towards good. It becomes the education of Bumpy Johnson. And this relationship is interesting because it makes Bumpy Johnson also have to explore what he’s doing to the community and how he can see it directly in his daughter, who is a heroin addict. I think there are so many levels to it. We haven’t even gotten to the mob level of it, like the battles and the conflicts between the Genovese and five families and what I almost consider the sixth family with Bumpy Johnson’s family in Harlem.
Well, let’s get into the mob part of the series. As evidenced in the trailer, a big part of the conflict is Bumpy returning from prison to a new Harlem and people like Vincent Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) having taken on more power.
It’s a pretty difficult dynamic in the sense that Bumpy came back to find out that all his territories and things he had put in place were now taken over by others and the Genovese family. He has to try and figure out how to restake his claim and be able to maintain his relationship with the families. It’s interesting, because Bumpy Johnson and Vincent Gigante, they both are very powerful figures and are fighting for the same territories, but you get to see them struggling with their own personal relationships in their lives and that parallel continues even in the battles against each other, because it sometimes plays out with their children. He has a relationship with his daughter and is dealing with her interracial relationship, while I have a relationship with my daughter and her addictions. These two men are fighting to maintain their own sense of power and control, and I think we get to explore that in a lot of different ways.
This show is set almost 60 years ago, but, like you said, it does feel like it has a resonance with this moment. Does this feel like the perfect time for Godfather?
I think it is. When I was originally approached, that is one of the things that was most interesting to me about it, that it was going to be able to hold up a mirror. Obviously, it’s an exciting show as well, but I think it really touches on the #MeToo movement and Black Lives Matter and all these different issues — immigration even. In a way, the show deals with a very diverse world. We’re dealing with immigrants and what they’re denied and what they’re not allowed to have, so some of that creeps in as well. So the show itself really touches on a lot of things that are happening today in an honest and true way.
You’ve described the series as “the American dream, by any means necessary.” How does that message translate on screen?
That’s why the show is so universal; it deals with the survival and primal needs of individuals from all different cultures striving to get their piece of the American pie and being able to live out the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in the largest way that they can and willing to do whatever is necessary to make that dream a reality. That’s why I say the American dream, by any means necessary. Everyone is reaching for and trying to achieve a better piece of life than they have. Historically, for immigrants, a lot of them had to go through criminality because that was the only thing offered to them in order to be able to stake their claim and make way for a second and third generation of doctors and lawyers. The people on the show are all doing what is necessary to have a good quality of life and that American dream that they feel was promised to them — even if in Bumpy Johnson’s case, that means needing to live in the criminal element.
Godfather of Harlem premieres Sunday on Epix.
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