A 1960s crime boss takes back his turf in EPIX’s ‘God­fa­ther of Har­lem’

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Cover Story -

Bumpy John­son was the kind of man who could play­fully steal the cherry from his grand­daugh­ter’s sun­dae one minute and en­gage in a shootout with his wouldbe killer the next. In the 1960s, he was the “God­fa­ther of Har­lem” and he’s the sub­ject of a limited se­ries de­but­ing this week on EPIX.

Pre­mier­ing Sun­day, Sept. 29, the so-ti­tled 10-episode hour­long drama is in­spired by the true story of crime boss John­son (played by Oscar win­ner For­est Whi­taker, “The Last King of Scot­land”), who in the early 1960s re­turns from 10 years in prison to find the north­ern Man­hat­tan neigh­bor­hood he once ruled ravaged by poverty, crime and drug ad­dic­tion and un­der the con­trol of the Ital­ian mob and Gen­ovese fam­ily chief­tain Vincent “Chin” Gi­gante (Vincent D’Onofrio, “Law & Or­der: Crim­i­nal In­tent”).

As he en­gages in a power strug­gle to re­claim his home turf, he re-ac­quaints him­self with the fam­ily he left be­hind, in­clud­ing wife Mayme (Ilfe­nesh Hadera, “Bil­lions”), a strong woman who is not afraid to speak truth to her pow­er­ful hus­band, and daugh­ter Elise (new­comer An­toinette Crowe-Legacy), a heroin-ad­dicted pros­ti­tute whose life he is in­tent on turn­ing around.

That is, when he’s not busy­ing him­self with the lu­cra­tive sale and dis­tri­bu­tion of the deadly drug him­self.

“I think he had re­ally strong lines of what he thought was right and was wrong,” Whi­taker, seated in a quiet cor­ner of a Bev­erly Hills, Calif., ho­tel, ex­plains. “I think his fam­ily was pre­cious to him and he would pro­tect them in any way that he could. And he loved, par­tic­u­larly you see him with (grand­daugh­ter) Mar­garet, like deeply. And I think when peo­ple cross lines that he thought were wrong, he was quick and im­me­di­ate to en­force judg­ment and pun­ish­ment upon those things.”

Yes, he could be ruth­less but he was also a smart busi­ness­man and com­mu­nity-minded. The pre­miere episode es­tab­lishes his long­time friend­ship with Mal­colm X (Nigel Thatch, “Valor”), the civil rights leader who opens Bumpy’s eyes to what’s hap­pen­ing in Har­lem and in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

“(Bumpy was) some­one with a strong sense of self,” says Whi­taker, also an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer here, “who was pur­su­ing the Amer­i­can dream of try­ing to em­power him­self and live a good life, past sur­vival but into op­u­lence. And a per­son who was a strate­gist, a per­son who was at times quite ruth­less and a per­son who wanted to bring hap­pi­ness to his com­mu­nity and stuff in the best way that he could given the job he was do­ing.”

“And it was in­ter­est­ing,” he con­tin­ues, “be­cause when you think about like a mob­ster that lasts a long time – be­cause he was from the ‘30s all the way to 1968 – that’s a long pe­riod of time to be able to be run­ning in the mob game and sell­ing drugs and not be harmed or killed. And he died of nat­u­ral causes.”

For­est Whi­taker

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