By Ron Wynn
NASHVILLE, TN — The great actor Forest Whitaker has greatly enjoyed himself in the EPOX series “Godfather of Harlem.” The third season, now streaming, promises looks at some iconic characters and key periods in Black history. The show has its critics, as some debate the wisdom of making a gangster’s life the central focus of a long-running TV show.
But Whitaker, an Oscar winner, brings stature and dignity as well as nuance to a difficult role and character. He portrays Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, Godfather of Harlem. The show’s third season finds Bumpy at a crossroads. With his massive shipment of heroin set ablaze amid the July 1964 Harlem riots, Bumpy is out of resources, and as always, the Italian mob is encroaching on his territory. With his reputation, family, and community hanging in the balance, Bumpy will be forced to seek new alliances.
Whitaker spoke with the Shadow and Act website about his role and developments in the show.
Ahead of the Season 3 debut, Shadow and Act spoke with Whitaker about embodying the ruthless gangster, Jason Alan Carvell
“I think initially when we talked about creating the show, we were talking about Bumpy Johnson and his life and the period and the time, and I didn’t know if the script would be able to reflect the Civil Rights Movement, the communality of the time, and also just the politics of the day,” Whitaker said. “After working on the script with Chris [Brancato] and with Paul [Eckstein], I realized that I was going to be able to say things that I wanted to say — something interesting. I didn’t want to play a gangster who didn’t help bring lessons to us, and we found a way to mirror today in some ways. I decided to go ahead and try the character myself.”
For Whitaker, stepping into Bumpy’s shoes means staying true to one thing. “I just try to make sure I commit to this code that he follows, and the principle of the code is the code of the gangsters of the Five Families,” the actor/director explained. “But as we move along, we start to see how that code expands and how it works with his family. I see it as what he’s trying to get from each group. I look at how his relationship will change with each person inside this group and how he’s growing and learning. And that’s what I’m working on when trying to figure him out.”
As the series has for its first two seasons, “Godfather of Harlem” will expand the world around Bumpy. “I was really excited when we talked about working with the Cuban Mafia,” the Black Panther actor said. “I thought it was exciting to bring in more or what would be more national politics and to be able to look into the prism of the FBI and the CIA. He starts to become more diversified now.”
Season three = is also set forth to bring a significant change with Jason Alan Carvell stepping in for Nigel Thatch as Minister Malcolm X. “I think Jason was coming with an almost meditative space, a very spiritual space, and he was exploring a change,” Whitaker reflected on working with the series newcomer. “I think it was a fun time for him to come in because it was also the time when Malcolm went to Mecca. He starts to discover that Islam is a religion shared by many different races, and he starts to look at how to bring people together to maybe his downfall when he tried to ignite the peace movement in his movement. I think that Jason carried in a new era, a new time with a different awareness of what was happening at that time. So I think it’s really good, and it’s positive that he could come in and do that.”
“Godfather of Harlem” is now streaming on EPIX.