Forest Whitaker is the recipient of an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA as Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland. In addition, he also took home Best Actor at Cannes as Charlie Parker in Bird.
There’s not much Whitaker hasn’t achieved yet, and the switch from the big screen to the small screen was inevitable. Whitaker stars as infamous real-life crime boss Bumpy Johnson in Godfather of Harlem in his first TV lead.
Godfather of Harlem is the remarkable true story of how the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement collided during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.
TheSouthAfrican.com was fortunate enough to secure a one-on-one chat with him at the Pivot in Johannesburg, to talk about the show’s development and his portrayal of Bumpy Johnson.
In conversation with Forest Whitaker
The Godfather of Harlem is an excellent example of what modern television is capable of today. Whitaker’s character Bumpy is a drug kingpin but also just a man trying to make sense of the world and connect with is family.
Was it hard to find that balance when portraying the character? Whitaker explains that he was trying to understand what Bumpy’s ultimate motivations were:
“One of those motivations was to be able to have a decent life and take care of his family and his extended family. He would do that by any means necessary. That dictated the ways I would feel and how strongly I would feel about certain issues. It acted as a guidepost for me.”
The Godfather of Harlem also touches on the tensions of the time: politics, religion and systemic power in America.
I asked Whitaker how important it was, as an executive producer and actor, to authentically portray the political tension; especially the extent of the racial prejudice that was at the heart of what formed America at that time.
“It’s one of the key reasons I did the project, about looking at the civil rights moments.”
Whitaker adds that another motivation was to “show some of the issues going on in the country then, and to recognise that those issues are continuing to permeate our society today”.
He explains that the Godfather of Harlem portrays it in “a very human way”, from the Opiate crisis and how it affects families, to the abuse and profiling of black men in America.
“There are so many different ways we looked at what’s real, and how that is continuing today; and we try to portray that to allow people to evaluate those issues as they see themselves in the mirror we create.”
Vincent D’Onofrio, who portrays Italian crime boss Vincent ‘Chin’ Gigante, is the embodiment of racial tension in the show, and he manages to get ahead by letting people underestimate him.
When I remarked that his character is very unpredictable and that it’s very easy for viewers to hate him, Whitaker needed clarification:
“Do you hate him? Because then that’s a mistake we made as directors. He is somebody who deeply cares about his family, deeply cares about his daughter; he has insecurities. [Gigante] is one of the immigrant stories we are telling; and the struggle to be able to control their piece of the pie. Do you hate him because of his racism, probably?”
I replied that hate is perhaps a strong word, but yes, I deeply dislike D’Onofrio’s character. I remarked that despite the tensions between Whitaker and D’Onofrio’s characters, I detect genuine respect.
Whitaker said that yes, the characters despise each other and would destroy each other if they could. They both do what they do very well. He adds:
“There has to be smart maneuvering, smart strategy or else smart brutality so as to not meet our ends by each other. [We are constantly] fighting for power. He took over my position when I went to prison, and now I’m trying to regain it back, and he doesn’t want to give it back. It’s really interesting to get the chance to see that, especially coloured through the racial eyes of the day, as you say. The sixties and what was going on between the cultures and the races at that time, he exemplifies that.”
It is definitely a very delicate and nuanced power struggle between the two characters and their families.
“Yes, you get to see that in his relationships, because his daughter has an interracial relationship that drives him over the edge. It’s something we’re exploring and will more explore more deeply as you get to the later episodes.”
The show also touches on the topics of drugs and the sense of control it has over powerless citizens. Bumpy seems to struggle through this moral dilemma with Malcolm X as his conscience.
I remarked that those scenes between Bumpy and Malcolm X were definitely some of the most entertaining in the show and wanted to know more about the dynamics between Whitaker and Nigel Thatch, who portrays Malcolm X.
Forest said Thatch is an amazing actor, and he can’t imagine anybody else doing the role justice:
“I remember when he first came in to audition, even in his ease he felt like Malcolm X. I thought that was really something. […] You get to see the crisis that he goes through; dealing with race and dealing with change.”
Time was running out and I had time for one last question. Whitaker has tackled difficult stories on the African continent already, and the work he’s doing in Uganda is making a difference.
I wanted to know how he would describe his feelings when visiting Africa, and the people he’s met here.
“I’ve been influenced greatly by the people, and the resilience of the people. […] I’ve worked with people in war zones who really have nothing but they’ve been able to eke out a business and be able to continue a livelihood. There’s a powerful spirit that permeates the entire continent which is unique. It’s not the pulse of my country, or the pulse of France, it’s unique.”
The Godfather of Harlem – What you need to know
If this hasn’t convinced you yet to give the show a go – other than starring award-winning Forest Whitaker in the lead, of course – there’s one more reason: Critics love it.
Godfather of Harlem has a 95% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The consensus is that the series is “as sharply dressed as it is smartly written.”
Time Magazine calls it the “rare gangster epic we haven’t seen before”, and Forbes is convinced that both Whitaker and Thatch – in their respective roles as Bumpy Johnson and Malcolm X – deserve an Emmy.
“Forest Whitaker is phenomenal as the out-of-touch godfather who’s playing catchup in a new world, and plays his character with a quiet yet haunting nuance that is this actor’s speciality.”
The Los Angeles Times.
Godfather of Harlem: Plot
In the early 1960s, Bumpy returns from Alcatraz to find the neighbourhood he once ruled in a shambles. With the streets controlled by Vincent ‘Chin’ Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) and the Italian mob, Bumpy takes on the Genovese crime family to regain control.
During the brutal battle, he forms an unlikely alliance with radical preacher Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), who wants to get heroin off the streets of Harlem.
Characters and cast
- Forest Whitaker as Bumpy Johnson
- Ilfenesh Hadera as Mayme Johnson, Bumpy’s wife
- Antoinette Crowe-Legacy as Elise Johnson, Bumpy’s heroin-addicted daughter
- Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, an old friend of Bumpy’s and one of the prominent figures in the Nation of Islam
- Kelvin Harrison Jr. as Teddy Greene, an aspiring musician and Stella’s boyfriend
- Rafi Gavron as Ernie Nunzi, a violent associate of Vincent’s
- Lucy Fry as Stella Gigante, Vincent’s daughter and Teddy’s girlfriend
- Vincent D’Onofrio as Vincent “The Chin” Gigante
- Giancarlo Esposito as Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
Recurring acts include Paul Sorvino as Frank Costello, Chazz Palminteri as Joe Bonanno, Steve Vinovich as Senator John McClellan, Tramell Tilman as Bobby Robinson, Deric Augustine as Muhammad Ali, and Clifton Davis as Elijah Muhammad.