‘Godfather of Harlem’ Shows How Bumpy Johnson Met Malcolm X

The new EPIX series Godfather of Harlem is a gangster tale of how Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker) rose to power in the ‘60s. It’s a dramatization of the true story with historical figures like Johnson, Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito).

Godfather of Harlem
(L-R) Godfather of Harlem stars Ilfenesh Hadera, Nigel Thatch, Forest Whitaker, Giancarlo Esposito, and theme song musician Swizz Beatz | Johnny Nunez/WireImage

The cast and producers of Godfather of Harlem gave a Television Critics Association panel this summer. They spoke about the intersection of real life historical figures audiences are going to get to see on the show. Godfather of Harlem premieres tonight at 10 p.m. on EPIX. 

1960s Harlem was a melting pot of history

Bumpy Johnson really did interact with Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., so there is historical basis for Godfather of Harlem.

“I think what we tried to do was look for relationships that we knew existed between Bumpy and other characters that were influential, and look for ways that there would be conflict, that there would be stories coming out of,” executive producer Paul Eckstein said. “I’d like to say we do the essence of the truth on the show. We’re getting at the issues that were truthful. We’re getting at the relationships that were truthful and we’re getting, hopefully, what the conflict is of that community as well.”

Nigel Thatch reprises his role of Malcolm X

Nigel Thatch also played Malcolm X in the movie Selma, which focused on Martin Luther King, Jr. Godfather of Harlem is sort of a prequel to Selma.

Nigel Thatch
Nigel Thatch | David Livingston/Getty Images

Selma, we cover Malcolm X post Mecca, after the pilgrimage. We’re talking, what, ’65? A couple of months before Malcolm X was assassinated. So Malcolm’s way of thinking post Mecca was very different from his ways of thinking in 1963. 1963 everything that Malcolm spoke, thought, and everything about Malcolm X was contingent upon the Honorable Elijah Muhammad and what he had learned from the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, and that’s the word that he gave to the people.”

Nigel Thatch, Television Critics Association panel, 7/27/19

Giancarlo Esposito researched Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Giancarlo Esposito grew up in New York before Seventh Ave. was named Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Blvd. He considered playing Powell “a great responsibility.”

“I had worked for many years with The Creative Coalition to raise the budget for the National Endowment of the Arts,” Esposito said. “Well, it wasn’t until I played this role that I came, through my research, to realize that that organization was started by Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. as well as the Minimum Wage Act and a plethora of other advancements that he put into his bills. I think there were 856 bills he passed in Congress. That record hasn’t been surpassed today.”

The show is called Godfather of Harlem, not Politician of Harlem, but Esposito still has a chance to embody the way Powell ran things, even if Bumpy Johnson does things his own way.

Giancarlo Esposito
Giancarlo Esposito | Emma McIntyre/Getty Images

“He stood up to the Dixiecrats in Washington and felt like he should be treated the exact same way,” Esposito said. “So he was an example for African Americans at that time that they could be empowered, and he thought that they could be empowered in a political system. In our story, of course, he comes head-to-head with Malcolm X because they disagree on many things, but come to agree that they have to come together to be able to bring their dreams to fruition.”

Powell is a preacher at the time Esposito plays him, but he’s full of complexities.

“He is also a preacher but you also see his other side,” Esposito said. “You see him trying to flirt with women. You see him doing all of what we do when we’re human but you got to go to the church to get the word out. [He’s] a politico who is understanding of his community, but also doesn’t turn away Bumpy Johnson. He doesn’t turn away Malcolm X because he knows that if he stamps it in the pulpit, the word is going to get out there and people will come together.”

‘The Godfather of Harlem’ will learn something from Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

Executive producer Chris Brancato called Gangster of Harlem “The education of Bumpy Johnson.” His relationship with real life historical figures like Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. will change and evolve him.

Godfather of Harlem panel
(L-R) Forest Whitaker, Vincent D’Onofrio, Giancarlo Esposito, Ilfenesh Hadera, Nigel Thatch, Paul Eckstein and Chris Brancato | by David Livingston/Getty Images

“Adam Clayton Powell is trying to work things legislatively,” Brancato said. “Malcolm X does not think they can be worked legislatively and we will watch as Malcolm X, as Nigel said, goes through a spiritual transformation of his own after visiting Mecca in 1964. Bumpy himself, who could be termed almost godless on some level, or he looks at the church with a great deal of suspicion, may in fact undergo his own spiritual transformation as we move through the planned six years of the show.”