Forest Whitaker Talks New Show ‘Godfather Of Harlem’ & America Now

In the hit new crime series from the creators of Narcos, Forest stars as infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson.

Oscar winner Forest Whitaker (The Last King of Scotland, Black Panther) was in Johannesburg recently to promote Godfather of Harlem, which is currently #41 on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best TV shows of 2019 so far.

In the hit new crime series from the creators of Narcos, Forest stars as infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson, who returns from Alcatraz in the early 1960s to find the neighbourhood he once ruled in a shambles.

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With the streets controlled by Vincent ‘Chin’ Gigante (Emmy nominee Vincent D’Onofrio from Daredevil and Jurassic World), Bumpy forms an unlikely alliance with radical preacher Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch, reprising his role from Selma) to take on the Italian mob and regain his position as the Godfather of Harlem.

Forest Whitaker speaks to Anele Mdoda at ‘An Evening With Forest Whitaker’ in Newtown, Johannesburg.

Now streaming on Showmax, 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.

While he was in the country, MH caught up with the legendary actor. Here’s what went down.

Who is Bumpy Johnson?

He’s a poet. He’s a chess master. He’s a father. He’s a really good friend. And he’s head of the underworld in Harlem.

Bumpy is very complicated: he has two sides to him. One side was the hero of the community, somewhat of a Robin Hood character. The other was the gang leader of Harlem.

Forest as Bumpy Johnson in The Godfather of Harlem.

He’s trying to excel with the options he has, for his family, his wife, his children, his community. He’s striving for the American dream: to pursue a life of liberty and prosperity in the best way that he can. He had a proficiency for this. He was a gangster for a long time – and he wasn’t killed; he died of a heart attack.

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Originally you were only going to produce this series. When did you realise you wanted to play Bumpy too?

It was working on the first draft and trying to understand Bumpy Johnson. When I saw how his life crossed with Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell, I just got more and more of a sense of wanting to do it.

What was interesting for me was the collision of crime and the civil rights movement and how that impacted every aspect of life in Harlem. That’s a big part of the show – how people were rising up and trying to fight to get their little piece of the pie. That’s the difference between this and most gangster projects – its backdrop of the 60s, so you can see what it looks like to be fighting for your liberties.

Why did you choose to set the show in 1963?

1963 was a pivotal year – at the beginning of the civil rights movement. That was the year that four girls in Birmingham were killed. That was the year when Wallace said, ‘Segregation now; segregation tomorrow; segregation forever.’ That was when Martin Luther King had the march on Washington and his ‘I have a dream’ speech. That was the year when Kennedy was assassinated. All of these events affect what happens in the show.

Despite the setting in the 60s, it feels very contemporary though?

Yes, the reason I chose to do The Godfather of Harlem was because we were going to be a mirror to look at the past and recognise the present. To look at issues like polarisation, racism, the opioid crisis, the incarceration of young black men. The war still hasn’t been won; we’re still dealing with so many of these issues.

In the series, Bumpy teams up with Malcolm X to take on the Genovese crime families. Tell us more.

It was really exciting to explore this relationship with Malcolm X. We’ve never seen that before.

They really were friends during that period of time, working in Harlem together, from different angles of course.

Characters Bumbpy Johnson and Malcolm X in The Godfather of Harlem.

Two weeks before Malcolm X died, he was surrounded by Bumpy’s bodyguards, and Malcolm asked him to remove those bodyguards because he wanted to be fresh and clear. Unfortunately that might have contributed to his demise.

These two men were friends from when Malcolm was a criminal, from before he ultimately changed in prison to become the Malcolm X we know today.

So it’s interesting to see the awakening of Bumpy Johnson as he starts to develop a conscience. Malcolm is trying to move him towards an awareness of the community and an awareness of what his power could really yield if he directed it towards the betterment of the community.

What would Bumpy or Malcolm X make of America in 2019?

They would be pleased that so many people are trying to rise up, from Black Lives Matter to Me Too, but disappointed that they haven’t gone further, that those issues are still so prevalent.

They would be frustrated because they would see a lot of things haven’t shifted, like the profiling of black young men in their community.

How does it make you feel to see Godfather of Harlem on Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the best shows of 2019?

I’m really proud of this show. I’ve got to do some really special films and projects but I consider this one of the stronger ones.

The show itself has a conscience. It’s exciting. It’s moving. The issues it brings up are still going on today.

It gives you a deep view into the family life of a mobster – which is something we haven’t seen since The Sopranos – and I think we see it here even more close up.

Is there a Season 2 on the way?

I believe. I can’t say for sure.

Did you get to keep the suits?

A couple of them.

Check out the trailer below

Stream Godfather of Harlem on Showmax here or watch it on 1Magic (channel 103) every Tuesday at 9:30pm

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