‘Godfather of Harlem’ – How Forest Whitaker created the legendary mobster

Bringing Bumpy Johnson to life

Forest Whitaker of ‘Godfather of Harlem’ Sundays on EPIX

Q: In addition to reading books, what kind of research did you do on your character Bumpy Johnson?

A: Yeah, I did some interviews, too. I was fortunate I got a chance to talk to Junie Byrd or to a couple of the guys who worked alongside him, a couple of his enforcers. There’s a guy named Chisholm, who’s still in New York who I sat with a number of times. I got a chance to talk to him. June Bug, who I got a chance to talk to as well. He was also working with Bumpy. Then some of the other gangsters … different people who were involved with the mobster scene at that time. Then I studied the period and the time, looked at Malcolm (X)’s stuff, looked at what was written, what all the researchers brought to the table about Bumpy and he started to formulate himself.

Q: In the show, we learn his wife Mayme is a strong woman who isn’t afraid to stand up to him. How would you describe that relationship?

A: That’s a really important one. When we start the film, we see him coming out of prison and his wife has been dealing with investing the monies that they have and she starts to open his eyes to what’s actually going on in the world. He’s new. He becomes the audience in a way because everything he sees is for the first time again. He’s trying to understand who’s running the numbers, what places are still open, all those kinds of things. But his wife does that for him and she advises him.

In fact at one point in the show, he’s making some choices that she thinks are wrong. She’s like, “You’re out of step. You’re not thinking about what’s really happening. You would never allow that to happen years ago.” So she’s done that, she knows he’s a mobster, she’s not trying to act like he’s not. She wants him to succeed at doing what he does. She’s willing to manipulate even the local constabulary and … the political machine of Adam Clayton Powell and others in order to help him in every way she could. So it’s a very powerful position she holds.

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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