The story is inspired by Johnson who returned to 1960’s Harlem after a 10-year prison bid to find the neighborhood he once ran having been taken over by the Italian mob. Bumpy has to go up against the Genovese crime family to regain control.
The series also examines Bumpy’s unlikely alliance with Malcolm X – which happens just as Malcolm’s political rise is in the crosshairs of social upheaval and a mob war that threatens to tear the city apart.
Giancarlo Esposito (Adam Clayton Powell Jr.), and Ilfenesh Hadera (Mayme Johnson) and the series executive producer and showrunner, Narcos co-creators Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein. The panel gave insight into the series, the layers of complicated issues and relationships it touches on, while at the intersection of criminality and civil rights.
Whitaker also serves as EP, said he knew about Johnson from movies such as Hoodlum and American Gangster, but in taking on the project, he learned so much more about his life and impact on social justice in Harlem.
“I really didn’t realize his influence on the community,” said Whitaker, “I didn’t know about his family life, his connection to Malcolm X, and him going after our needs and our desires for a great life.”
He also added that he hopes viewers can see the parallels to what’s happening in today’s current society and take action in their own lives.
Thatch touched on the difference in his role in this series versus when he portrayed the radical leader in “Selma.” He said that this version of Malcolm is pre-1963, before Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca. His views were different and more radical at this time. It also comes at a time when he took issue with the Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad over his extramarital affairs with young Nation secretaries.
The true-life historical points in the duo’s relationship do draw some dramatic license, but stuck as close to real-life events as possible by researching not only history books, but also included interviews with “surviving heirs” of the two.
Brancato shared with “The entire goal was to keep the spirit of the time and the characters… we sought to put their attitudes and specific words in their mouths.”
Hadera said her role as Johnson’s wife Mayme isn’t the typical story of the wife spending all the money or being shocked and helpless when it’s time to go to war. She says Mayme was “gangster” in her own ways too. “She knew what she signed up for Hadera said.. “she did what she had to do to survive.”
There is also a soundtrack to the series, Swizz Beats is the music supervisor. There is a combination of music from the period and original music featuring John Legend, Rick Ross and DMX that will be available on Epic records.
Godfather of Harlem debuts on Sept. 29 at 10pm on Epix.