*The story of Bumpy Johnson is one that has been played within American popular culture since before his death in 1968. The gangster of African-American descent has been immortalized, fictionalized in some instances, seven films; including “Hoodlum” starring Laurence Fishburne and “American Gangster,” where he was portrayed by the great Clarence Williams III.
With the upcoming EPIX series “Godfather of Harlem,” starring Forest Whitaker and based on the book Harlem Godfather written by his widow Mayme Hatcher Johnson, viewers will get an intimate look into the life of Bumpy Johnson, seen by some as an angel, while lambasted as a devil by others. Academy Award-winning actor Forest Whitaker not only stars in the title role but was instrumental in getting the project greenlit.
Recently, EURweb was in attendance at the 3rd Annual Tribeca TV Festival and had the opportunity to chat with one of the most celebrated actors of our time.
Though criminality and immorality are often painted with the same broad brush, the duality of existence dictates there’s always more to an individual or circumstance that meets the eye.
“Bumpy Johnson was a poet, a devout Baptist, a strategist and a chess player,” Whitaker said. “He had a great sense of family in regard to protecting his own family and a great sense of history. He was really interesting. I think one of the most interesting things about the series, though, is the type of relationship he had with Malcolm X. Many people aren’t fully aware of what type of relationship they had after meeting earlier in Malcolm’s Detroit Red days. Eventually, he and Malcolm entered into, not really a relationship, but mutual things happened to them.”
EURweb: You don’t get as far in life, criminally or otherwise, as Bumpy Johnson did without being highly intelligent and motivated.
Forest Whitaker: “Bumpy Johnson is someone who had been struggling since he was a kid when he left South Carolina. A phrase, which I coin a lot, this show is about the American dream by any means necessary. It’s the convergence of what you need to do to be a success in life in a capitalist society with the options that were available to individuals at that time. He actually wanted to be a lawyer.”
EURweb: As has been mentioned on more than one occasion, the goal of most intelligent individuals operating within organized crime was to legitimize themselves and become a part of “polite” society. What do you think Bumpy’s goal ultimately was?
Forest Whitaker: “I think he wanted to be embraced by the legitimate community. I think part of his trajectory was to build up his business, build up his community and ultimately be able to help the community in some way. He wanted to be looked at in those circles and think it’s common. A lot of immigrants took this route. A lot of African Americans, who were brought here, have a different story than immigrants. But Irish culture, Italian culture, and even Asian cultures started out with some form of criminality. Those were the spaces they were able to fit in to rise up so that the generation after them would be able to become doctors and lawyers. He represents that climb, that push.”
EURweb: Bumpy Johnson already has a movie portraying his early life, but Godfather of Harlem portrays the pivotal years following his release from Alcatraz. What can we expect to see?
Forest Whitaker: “The questions we’re going to explore as far as his emotional education drew me in. He sells drugs in his community, heroin. In this show, we watch how he deals with that because his daughter is a heroin addict and is living on the streets. We see what that means to a father who’s driving and sees his daughter on a street corner hustling her body because of what he’s doing. It’s an education that starts with Bumpy Johnson that we get to share in the show.”
EURweb: Power on the streets is one thing, but Bumpy Johnson also was a shot-caller in ways one wouldn’t expect.
Forest Whitaker: “Bumpy Johnson actually staged a sit-in at the police station in real life! It’s interesting to see what we’re doing with the show because it juxtaposes the opiate epidemic that’s happening right now, the racial divides that are happening right now, the profiling that’s happening right now. His issue about profiling was that they were over policing the black community and that’s why he held a sit-in. We get to see, through the lens of the 60s, what’s happening right now.”
“Godfather of Harlem” premieres on EPIX on Sunday, September 29 and features an otherworldly cast that includes Vincent D’Onofrio, ILfenesh Hadera, Antoinette Crow-Legacy, Paul Sorvino, Giancarlo Esposito and Rafi Gavron, among others.