After being imprisoned for ten years, Bumpy Johnson returns to Harlem in Epix’s new series The Godfather of Harlem. Forest Whitaker plays Bumpy Johnson, whose sole mission is to take on an Italian mob and reclaim the city that’s his. In partnering with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), Bumpy is set in a political time zone that shakes the 1960s.
Forest Whitaker told us all about working with Nigel Thatch and Vincent D’Onofrio, and the enlightening relationship between Bumpy Johnson and Malcolm X.
The Knockturnal: From your perspective, what influence do you think Bumpy has on the current society? On this new generation?
Forest Whitaker: “Well, I think that when he was coming up with Malcolm and Adam Clayton and all that, they made certain and really impactful decisions that happened in the community. There were riots that were going on. The decisions that have affected today, you don’t think about how those things all fall upon the shoulders of the past, but it’s true. And I think some of the iconography of who they are for people, they aspire to, not necessarily to be a drug dealer or gangster in that way, but to have that kind of empowerment, that kind of power and to be able to command that kind of authority. I think it’s important Malcolm, Adam Clayton [etc.] have these kind of representations of that.”
The Knockturnal: What did you find the most intriguing about Malcolm X and Bumpy’s relationship?
Forest Whitaker: “Honestly, when I first became involved, we were just deciding from an idea. When I found that out, I was really fascinated. I didn’t know about that. It makes some sense, he was Detroit Red, he was into the criminal world. Malcolm X was before when he was Malcolm Little, you know what I mean? So I guess you can see where they would have crossed, but you don’t really think about it and I definitely don’t think about…I hadn’t been thinking about how the criminal world affects the civil rights movement and the politics of the day. I guess you can think about that when it comes to, in regards to John F. Kennedy and his father who was a bootlegger who was manipulating things around to get his son elected president. I can see that now. I know that storyline. I hadn’t seen it in terms of Bumpy Johnson, Malcolm X, and Adam Clayton. This is new.”
The Knockturnal: Can you tell me what it was like working with Nigel and Vincent on this project?
Forest Whitaker: “I remember Nigel, when we first looked at the tape on Nigel. I was like oh my God, when he came in and read. He had such an ease about being Malcolm X. He sat down in front of us and he started saying the lines, and we’re like, this guy is Malcolm X [laughter]. And it’s been great because exploring scenes with him is like a sense of centering and empowering as an actor. It’s really been great for me. Vincent is like monstrous, we have this real big rivalry. His character in a way is more emotionally expansive. He’s more aggressive, he’s like a…not a bear, but maybe a lion or something. So we come at each other. And it’s interesting to see which one of us will survive. Ultimately, they both survive.”
The Knockturnal: One thing I really did love seeing was the family dynamic. I think it’s really important that we get to see that part of the story about Bumpy. And you being a father yourself, I’m wondering if there is any advice you would give to other fathers who are trying to balance parenthood and being a businessman?
Forest Whitaker: “I think I can only gauge it by the faults. I think to actually give enough time to be able to be there is really important, and we pass by that some times. I think that leaves a lot of room for mistakes, and concerns, and sense of self.”
The Knockturnal: What was the most prominent thing that you learned about Bumpy that you were surprised to learn?
Forest Whitaker: “I think it was understanding what we were talking about when it comes to like how his world connected to the expansion of his community and how that related to the advancement of the race itself and I guess I didn’t really think of him in those terms. You think of a man that’s a gangster who runs Harlem and gives away baby turkeys and stuff on the holiday. You don’t really think of the strategic movements of what had to happen in order to be able to control the community itself. Millions and millions of dollars that were being moved in and out all the time. It’s controlling the economy and the emotional, cultural perspective of the community itself.”
The Godfather of Harlem premieres on September 29 on Epix.