A 1960s crime boss takes back his turf in EPIX’s ‘Godfather of Harlem’

‘Godfather of Harlem’ – Forest Whitaker shines as ’60s crime boss

Forest Whitaker stars in “Godfather of Harlem,” premiering Sunday on EPIX.

Bumpy Johnson was the kind of man who could playfully steal the cherry from his granddaughter’s sundae one minute and engage in a shootout with his would-be killer the next. In the 1960s, he was the “Godfather of Harlem” and he’s the subject of a limited series debuting this week on EPIX.

Premiering Sunday, Sept. 29, the so-titled 10-episode hourlong drama is inspired by the true story of crime boss Johnson (played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker, “The Last King of Scotland”), who in the early 1960s returns from 10 years in prison to find the northern Manhattan neighborhood he once ruled ravaged by poverty, crime and drug addiction and under the control of the Italian mob and Genovese family chieftain Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”).

As he engages in a power struggle to reclaim his home turf, he re-acquaints himself with the family he left behind, including wife Mayme (Ilfenesh Hadera, “Billions”), a strong woman who is not afraid to speak truth to her powerful husband, and daughter Elise (newcomer Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), a heroin-addicted prostitute whose life he is intent on turning around.

Nigel Thatch (left) and Forest Whitaker star in “Godfather of Harlem,” premiering Sunday on EPIX.

That is, when he’s not busying himself with the lucrative sale and distribution of the deadly drug himself.

“I think he had really strong lines of what he thought was right and was wrong,” Whitaker, seated in a quiet corner of a Beverly Hills, Calif., hotel, explains. “I think his family was precious to him and he would protect them in any way that he could. And he loved, particularly you see him with (granddaughter) Margaret, like deeply. And I think when people cross lines that he thought were wrong, he was quick and immediate to enforce judgment and punishment upon those things.”

Yes, he could be ruthless but he was also a smart businessman and community-minded. The premiere episode establishes his longtime friendship with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch, “Valor”), the civil rights leader who opens Bumpy’s eyes to what’s happening in Harlem and in American society.

“(Bumpy was) someone with a strong sense of self,” says Whitaker, also an executive producer here, “who was pursuing the American dream of trying to empower himself and live a good life, past survival but into opulence. And a person who was a strategist, a person who was at times quite ruthless and a person who wanted to bring happiness to his community and stuff in the best way that he could given the job he was doing.”

“And it was interesting,” he continues, “because when you think about like a mobster that lasts a long time – because he was from the ‘30s all the way to 1968 – that’s a long period of time to be able to be running in the mob game and selling drugs and not be harmed or killed. And he died of natural causes.”

George Dickie

George Dickie

George Dickie has been a features writer for Gracenote/Tribune Media Services since 1989, when “Hee-Haw” was still on the air and George “Goober” Lindsay was his first interview. His early interviews ranged from Jim Henson and Dick Van Dyke to Phil Collins and the Dixie Chicks.

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