The story of Bumpy Johnson has been told through television, and film over the years in movies such as Hoodlum, and American Gangster, and now Johnson’s life in the 1960s will be retold in Epix’s upcoming series Godfather of Harlem which stars Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker as Johnson, and produced by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein (who starred in Hoodlum). Whitaker, Brancato, and Eckstein along with actress Ilfenesh Hadera attended this year’s Tribeca TV Festival on September 12th to premiere the first episode of the season. The Knockturnal got the chance to chat with Whitaker and Brancato prior to the screening.
The Knockturnal: What drew you to this project?
Chris Brancato: Well the idea of being able to look at Bumpy Johnson in the 1960s with the Civil Rights Movement going on with the violence in Harlem that was going on at the time was attractive to us. Obviously having Forest Whitaker play Bumpy Johnson is a dream come true. You have one of the greatest actors in the world bringing his considerable intelligence and acting ability to the role. and we had a great time engaging in Harlem with the people there, shooting up there. I think that what we’re trying to is tell a story that says something about today even though it’s set in the sixties. So to that end not only is some of the subject matter gonna be very familiar to viewers about life today having to do with heroin crisis, police brutality, African American social movements that are gaining momentum. But the show also tries to capture that modern spirit musically. We have Swizz Beat our executive music producer who cut an incredible soundtrack album that was created for the show itself by artist who watch the show then created songs. We’re not just grabbing hip hop songs and sticking them on the show, we’re having music created that’s for the show itself. So that’s what helps give us the sense of watching the show, you don’t feel like you’re watching something so far in the past that you can’t relate. That was the key to make it relatable.
The Knockturnal: What was the most challenging thing about making the series?
Chris Brancato: The most challenging thing was trying to recreate 63 Harlem in 2019, where when you shoot a scene you have to use visual effects to paint out crosswalks or street signs that aren’t right anymore. So it was a very big challenge to use the money we had to make the show and still make the show really look like it was taking place in that time period.
The Knockturnal: In stepping into Bumpy Johnson’s shoes in portraying him in this series what did you learn about him?
Forest Whitaker: First of all he was quite a businessman in the way he handled his affairs as a mobster or the Godfather of Harlem. He was a poet, he was a strategist a chess player. He had a great deal of sense of family in regards to his own family how he protects them and the family that was his extended family( the people who work for him) so it was really interesting. I think one of the most interesting things people are gonna find out about the series though is this kind of relationship he had with Malcolm X, which I think people are not really aware of that relationship. You get to see that explored a little bit in the show because of them meeting earlier in the sort of Detroit days of Red (Malcolm X) and them moving into somewhat of I wouldn’t say partnership but just sometimes there is mutual aid that’s happening between them.
The Knockturnal: With you portraying Bumpy Johnson, and previously having portrayed Idi Amin, in which both men can be viewed as polarizing. How do you bring a sense of humanity to portraying individuals like Amin or Johnson who were known for their acts of violence, and criminality?
Forest Whitaker: Even with Idi Amin you keep on covering what happened in his life to make him become what he is, then you find the human connection that thing at the bottom of that connects him to you. Bumpy Johnson was someone who had been striving since he was a kid, since he first moved out of South Carolina, trying to reach out for that American dream. In fact, I coined the phrase a lot which was that this show is about the American Dream by any means necessary, the convergence of like what you have to do in order to be able to reach a dream of success in your life and your family. And he represents that in a lot of ways. The options that were available to individuals of that time, he [Bumpy] actually wanted to be a lawyer.
The Knockturnal: What is the significance of premiering the series here at the Tribeca TV Festival?
Chris Brancato: Well I think that this is a quintessential New York festival and our show is about New York City, and a New York City that really no longer exists. So the idea that we’re doing it here in Tribeca is a dream for us. And we’ll be doing some stuff at the Apollo to present it too up in Harlem. But this is the perfect television festival for us to do this.
Godfather of Harlem will premiere on Epix on September 29th.