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The real-life figure of drug kingpin Bumpy Johnson, or versions of him, has been played in a number of movies over the years, most notably in Shaft, Escape from Alcatraz, The Cotton Club and American Gangster—as a supporting character. But in Godfather of Harlem, the crime drama series on Epix, he takes center stage.
In an interview with THR Presents, powered by Vision Media, the actors and creators behind the series—including Forest Whitaker, who plays the title character, and Giancarlo Esposito, who plays New York congressman Adam Clayton Powell—talked about its blend of fact and fiction, as well as the mashup of the gangster saga with consciousness-raising social drama.
“Bumpy is going through a journey of consciousness of knowing and understanding things,” says Whitaker about his character. “The way (co-creators Paul Eckstein and Chris Brancato) have written it, you have this kettle with the Civil Rights movement and criminality coming together, and Bumpy Johnson, who’s a drug dealer but also a family man, who slowly has to learn from Adam Clayton Powell, Malcolm X (played by Nigél Thatch), his wife and all these things around him about what he should become, who he should be. And that what’s interesting to get the chance to play, is to be affected by the universe and then watch the changes that happen and that happen to all of us.”
Esposito had already plowed through piles of data on Powell, whom he’d met as a child, prior to taking on the role. But the series opened his eyes even more to what Powell represented to his community and the push for racial justice.
“Don’t forget that he is an accomplished lawyer,” says Esposito of Powell. “And what does that mean in his relationship to Bumpy, when Bumpy needs something, and what does that mean when he’s trying to uncover the Italian mob and bring them up to a Congressional hearing, and how does he leave Bumpy out of that? And our writers were absolutely stealth in dealing with that subject matter.”
“What I understood more in our second season,” he adds, “was his deep and abiding commitment to freedom for African Americans and for them to be treated the exact same way as white folks are, no matter where they are in this world.”
The long-suffering wife of a criminal figure is a well-established trope in movies and television and often a thankless role for an actress. But Ilfenesh Hadera, who plays Mayme Johnson, feels lucky that her character presented something fuller for her to tackle in the series.
“All thanks due to Paul and Chris for not turning Mayme into this wife on the sidelines, clutching her pearls and biting her fingernails while her man is out on the streets doing what he does, oblivious to his gallivanting and his business dealings,” says Hadera. “She is as much a part of his world as any one woman would wish to be. She is a partner and a confidant. (In season two), Mimi is allowed to have a life outside of Bumpy. She knows where the money comes from, she knows about the affairs. And now let’s move on, let’s see her world as an activist, and in the community and with Giancarlo (as Powell) and outside of the kitchen and all these wonderful places that make her world full and complex.”
As for the series’ tricky balance between fact and drama, Eckstein explains that it’s more about viewer engagement and whetting the audience’s appetite for this moment in history.
“The key is to remember we’re not doing a documentary, we’re writing a piece of historical fiction,” says Eckstein. “Our aim is to get at the essence of the truth and not just the facts. And to really explore what these characters were experiencing and living at that time, and trying to make it accessible to an audience today. And my biggest dream is if you watch our show, and these extraordinary performances, that it motivates audiences to educate themselves. I want kids to Google who Adam Clayton Powell is; I want them to find out what the [Little] Fruit Stand Riot was really about. And that our show can be extremely engaging and entertaining and just a little bit enlightening.”
This edition of THR Presents is brought to you by Epix.
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