Forest Whitaker to Star in Epix Straight-to-Series Crime Drama (Exclusive)

Forest Whitaker - The Forgiven Premiere - Getty - H 2018
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After five months on the job, new Epix president Michael Wright has taken his first big swing.

The MGM-owned cable network has handed out a 10-episode, straight-to-series order for the scripted drama Godfather of Harlem, starring and executive produced by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker.

Godfather of Harlem tells the true story of crime boss Bumpy Johnson (Whitaker), who in the early 1960s returned after 10 years in prison to find the neighborhood he once ruled in shambles. With the streets controlled by the Italian mob, Bumpy takes on the Genovese crime family to regain control. During the brutal battle, he forms an alliance with radical preacher Malcolm X — catching his political rise in the crosshairs of social upheaval and a mob war that threatens to tear the city apart. The series is described as a collision of the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.

Chris Brancato (Narcos) and Paul Eckstein are attached to serve as writers and exec producers on the ABC Signature Studios project. Whitaker exec produces alongside his Significant Productions banner topper Nia Yang Bongiovi, Eckstein, James Acheson and Markuann Smith. Brancato will serve as showrunner.

"Godfather of Harlem is a show with powerful relevance to the issues we face today — gang violence, police brutality, opioid addiction and racial politics in a divided country," Whitaker said Wednesday in a statement. "I'm grateful to have the opportunity to bring this character to life and to work with Michael Wright, the Epix team and ABC Signature, alongside excellent writers and producers."

Godfather of Harlem is Whitaker's first series regular role since he starred on CBS' ill-fated Criminal Minds spinoff Suspect Behavior in 2011. Most recently, the Oscar winner (The Last King of Scotland) had a recurring role on Fox's hip-hop soap Empire. His small-screen credits include earning an Emmy nomination for his guest turn on NBC's ER. On the big screen, Whitaker's credits include Black Panther, The Butler and the upcoming Finding Steve McQueen. He is repped by WME and Brillstein Entertainment.

For Epix, Godfather of Harlem joins a scripted roster that also includes the drama Berlin Station and the comedy Get Shorty. The deal comes five months after former Turner head Wright took over for Mark Greenberg, who launched the cabler, as president of Epix and a year after MGM acquired full control over the premium cable network that was previously a joint venture between Viacom and Lionsgate. It also sends a signal to the creative community that Wright will look outside of MGM Television for scripted originals.

"We read the script, and met with Chris, Paul and Forest, and knew immediately that this show was perfect for Epix,” said Wright. “It’s an exciting and relevant story, brought to life by passionate, extraordinary talent and a great studio in ABC Signature. It’s exactly the kind of series we want to put on Epix as we build awareness and expand the network’s distribution across the country."

For producers ABC Signature Studios, the cable-focused arm of ABC Studios (where Brancato has an overall deal), Godfather of Harlem joins a roster of programming including Hulu's Little Fires Everywhere, starring Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, and Marvel drama Runaways; Freeform's Marvel drama Cloak and Dagger and Black-ish spinoff Grown-ish; and Showtime's SMILF; among others.

"Epix is the perfect home for the fascinating and timeless story of Bumpy Johnson," said ABC Studios president Patrick Moran. "We're so appreciative of the unwavering enthusiasm and passion that Michael and his team have brought to the project. Chris and Paul's script is phenomenal, and we're thrilled to have Oscar winner Forest Whitaker on board to produce and star."

Brancato is repped by WME; Eckstein is with CAA and Rain Management Group.