Forest Whitaker Says ‘Godfather of Harlem’ Is About Civil Rights

Forest Whitaker plays Bumpy Johnson on Epix’s new series Godfather of Harlem. Johnson was a Harlem mob boss, but he’s perhaps not as well known as famous Italian gangsters like Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano. Johnson was a character in movies like Hoodlum and American Gangster but now he gets his own TV series. 

Forest Whitaker
Forest Whitaker | Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for Whitaker Peace & Development Initiative

Set in ‘60s Harlem, Godfather of Harlem will show more than Johnson’s criminal enterprises. He was also active in the Civil Rights Movement with leaders like Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito). Whitaker was on a Television Critics Association panel discussing Godfather of Harlem this summer. Godfather of Harlem premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on Epix.

Forest Whitaker says ‘Godfather of Harlem’ is relevant to Black Lives Matter

Forest Whitaker saw parallels between the Civil Rights Movement of the ‘60s and the issues facing civil rights today. He hopes watching Godfather of Harlem will inspire viewers to learn new ways to fight for rights.

“From the show, you see struggles and battles of people trying to win, to have power in their lives,” Whitaker said. “I think for people to be able to watch it, take away all those emotional contexts that go on, but then also recognize that they have to step forward, make a choice and do things in their lives to change those things.”

Malcolm X said “by any means necessary.” Bumpy Johnson used some unorthodox means.

“There are parallels between what’s happening inside of the show, in the Civil Rights Movement, [and] what’s happening right now with our Black Lives Matter [movement],” Whitaker said. “They’re very clear, and if you look at that and take that from it and realize that you can effectuate a change in your own life, then I’ll be really excited while they enjoy the show.”

The Civil Rights angle sold Forest Whitaker on ‘Godfather of Harlem’

Forest Whitaker said executive producers Markuann Smith and James Acheson first approached him about playing Bumpy Johnson. It was creators Chris Brancato and Paul Ekstein’s take that sold him.

Forest Whitaker
Forest Whitaker | Jim Spellman/Getty Images

“I think when I realized, after discussions and Chris and Paul were inside the mix of this, from their discussions I started to see the complications of the life and what could be shown,” Whitaker said. “How it would reflect the issues that were going on today, how we would be able to explore criminality and politics and the Civil Rights Movement all at once. It became more and more of a passion piece.”

Other Bumpy Johnson stories didn’t explore his community activism

Hoodlum and American Gangster were gangster movies, so they focused on Bumpy Johnson as a gangster. Forest Whitaker is excited to go deeper in Godfather of Harlem.

“I really didn’t know the depth of his personality or the depth of his influence on the community,” Whitaker said. “I didn’t realize or understand the relationship between him and Malcolm X. I didn’t know about his family life. So I think it’s those things, understanding his connection with the Civil Rights Movement, of criminality, of being able to be centered in the family and going after our needs or desires for a great life.”

Forest Whitaker says all the gangsters were trying to ‘live a good life’

Forest Whitaker said Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. present to Bumpy Johnson different ways to “live a good life.” In Italian gangster Vincent Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio), Johnson sees someone in his own field. 

Forest Whitaker and Vincent D'Onofrio
Vincent D’ Onofrio (L) and Forest Whitaker (R) | Mike Coppola/Getty Images

“Vincent Gigante tried to get a quality of life, the American dream and finding that in any means you can,” Whitaker said. “Nigel was amazing. Giancarlo was amazing. All the actors were amazing, but to get the opportunity to be able to interplay with those things was a quite exciting experience on scripts that were written in such a magnificent way.”