Harlem stood out like a glittering jewel when America was at war with itself. It became a Mecca for Black people who wanted to live, thrive, and love away from oppressive racism. Harlem was never perfect, but for many decades it was ours. Inspired by the real-life crime boss
Godfather of Harlem, is an excellent gangster drama that centers on a rapidly changing nation, an expansive Black community, and a man that, for better or worse, held Harlem in his hand.
Starring Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker as Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson,, Godfather of Harlem’s third season, will find 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.
Ahead of the Season 3 debut, Shadow and Act spoke with Whitaker about embodying the ruthless gangster, Jason Alan Carvell stepping into play Malcolm X and what fans can look forward to this season.
When Godfather of Harlem was first developed, Whitaker was initially only signed on as executive producer. “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,” he explained. “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.”
Bumpy Johnson is such a complex character. When Godfather of Harlem first premiered, he was returning home after an 11-year stint in prison. Over the past two seasons, Bumpy has been vicious and ruthless. Still, he also has a deep love for his wife Mayme (Ilfenesh Hadera) and his daughters, Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) and Margaret (Demi Singleton). Similarly, his relationships with Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch Seasons 1-2 and Jason Alan Carvell Season 3) and Adam Clayton Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) have radicalized him politically.
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 3 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 resonates because it reflects both the present and the past. It offers a scope of American society at a macro level while zooming into the nuances of the Black community.
“I think the show has always been trying to mirror society and the community, particularly Harlem,” The Last King of Scotland actor said. “I think we’re just getting to see how threats are shown from the government, how choices are being made to affect the community, and how we can find ways to fight back with the protests and from criminal activities of Bumpy. But it allows us to explore more of the effects of the time. Because the effects are so strongly linked to some of the things today, including police brutality, the opiate crisis —- all these things, we get a chance to explore this on a larger level because we are looking through this prism of the world yesterday. Now it’s expanding to today, and it’s expanding to all the different organizations that tried to control it.”
With the expansive cast and the engaging material, Godfather of Harlem remains textured and elevated because of the attention to detail. From the set design to the costuming, the series is a true immersion into a different time.
“It’s like magic,” Whitaker says. “Harlem feels like a very magical place with very beautiful people. You get to see the cars out, pieces of costumes, and set a place where they take them to the world. I think we have an excellent costume designer. My suits were all custom-made Domenico Vacca suits carved to shape the character’s behavior. We wanted him to appear almost like a banker. It’s defined with the characters. Ilfenesh is defined by her outfits as well because she becomes immersed in the politics of the day and, of course, as my consigliere, advising Bumpy on what to do. You can see her strength in the pencil dresses and how she carries herself. She works through politics with Adam Clayton Powell and tries to get me on the right path.”
Godfather of Harlem Season 3 debuts January 15 at 9PM on MGM+
Aramide A. Tinubu is a film critic, consultant and entertainment editor. As a journalist, her work has been published in Netflix’s Tudum, EBONY, JET, ESSENCE, Bustle, The Daily Mail, IndieWire and Blavity. She wrote her master’s thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can find her reviews on Rotten Tomatoes or A Word With Aramide or tweet her @wordwitharamide.