Forest Whitaker on his experience of playing the real-life Godfather of Harlem
Godfather of Harlem is based on the infamous real-life crime boss, Bumpy Johnson, who returns from 11 years in prison to find the neighbourhood he once ruled in shambles. With the streets controlled by Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Emmy nominee Vincent D’Onofrio from Daredevil and Jurassic World) and the Italian mob, Bumpy must take on the Genovese crime family to regain control. During the brutal battle, he allies with radical preacher Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch from Selma).
Godfather of Harlem also shows how the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement collided during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.
We caught up with Forest Whitaker during his recent visit to South Africa to chat about his experience of creating one of the most talked-about crime drama series of 2019.
Before embarking on this character, you had the opportunity to interview June Bug (Bumpy’s bodyguard). Can you tell us the most amusing Bumpy story June Bug shared about his boss?
There was an incident where they were driving, and a gunfight ensued between them and these other mobsters. While Bumpy was shooting at the mobsters, he ordered June Bug not to get out of the car, but being young and hot-headed June Bug got out the car anyway. That sent Bumpy over the edge as June Bug didn’t listen to his orders. That was something that was interesting to me – how Bumpy always walked into the line of fire and how he had his own set of rules about what he thought was right and wrong.
You’ve mentioned how in awe you are of your female cast members, especially Lifanesh Hadera and Antoinette Crow-Legacy. Which of their scenes was your favourite and why?
Lifanesh does this scene after I come back from prison where she forces me to speak about my life in prison for me to be able to to move on with my life. I found her to be really powerful in that particular scene, and it made me appreciate her even more as an actress.
The same goes for Antoinette. Antoinette does this amazing scene where, after a policeman sexually assaults her, she has a heart to heart chat with me as father and daughter. In that conversation, she expresses how she’s forgiven me. In that same scene, she reveals that she’s setting me free and that I don’t have to feel guilty about her being who she is anymore (a drug addict). Both those scenes were really emotionally powerful for me.
You’ve appeared in numerous television productions in your career; but in a CBS interview, you mentioned that being a part of Godfather of Harlem felt as though you were making an independent film. Why is that so?
I do independent films a lot, so you have to shoot at a specific rate (with regards to speed and time), and these kind of movies are low budget which is what I was referring to when making this series.
Also, for us, we were lucky because Michael Wright (Epix President) didn’t impose a bunch of things on us to create the show, so that made the series even more independent, especially when considering its individualistic viewpoints.
You’ve also mentioned that characters you find challenging to get out of are ones that have mental health issues. While doing your research about Bumpy, do you feel he dealt with his mental health issues, especially after being imprisoned for so long?
I think he had a certain mentality that he maintained throughout his life. You know, Bumpy died still selling drugs – he had a heart attack while he was still under investigation. But, I think, for his sanity, he found a way that he thought was correct, and that was to pursue his dreams through this type of business.
Although his decision to do so made him do a lot of things that were harmful to society – the drug business allowed him to maintain a sense of balance in his life. I also think this show is going to display a continuous play on the mental issues that happened with someone who chose this kind of lifestyle and how he tried to fix his life and his family despite going through a lot mentally. We’ll see that as the show continues to evolve.
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