The latest season of the hit drama series Godfather of Harlem will premiere this weekend. Lead actor and executive producer Forest Whitaker shares his insight on the show.
The life of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson has become one of a legend. With Godfather of Harlem starring Oscar-winning actor Forest Whitaker as the crime lord, that life is fleshed out in vivid and gripping fashion. The show captures Johnson returning home to his beloved Harlem, New York in the early 1960s after 10 years in prison. Facing off against the Italian mob, Johnson fights to reclaim his empire with the direct motto: “Harlem is mine.”
Godfather of Harlem has become a highly-lauded dramatic series since premiering on MGM Plus (formerly Epix) in 2019. With a striking cast—Vincent D’Onofrio as Bumpy’s nemesis Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, Giancarlo Esposito as Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jason Alan Carvell as Bumpy’s old friend and ally Malcolm X, and Ilfenesh Hadera as Mayme Johnson—the show’s emotional gravitas and the intersection of history (backed by an energetic soundtrack produced by Swizz Beatz) is among the best in television today.
CASSIUSLife got a chance to talk with Whitaker about his experience in playing Bumpy and how this new season will give viewers more to be riveted by.
Cassius: As the show’s progressed, we’re witnessing Bumpy fighting to remain true to himself and to the Harlem that he loves. How has this season and the preparation for it allowed you to imbue that in his character?
Forest Whitaker: I think we come into the season when he just finished the riots in season two. He’s trying to rebuild himself and he’s got to really look at terrain to try to find a partnership to build to make things work out. And he ultimately ends up with a new partnership, which is kind of expected in his world, which is what the Cuban mafia does. And we get to see how that relationship sparks.
Then what it sparks is pushing them also to the world of the CIA and FBI. So the show’s awarenesses are expanded to this season because we get to see Malcolm become expanded, he’s supposed to visit Mecca this season. I’m understanding a different world as well. My wife is trying to get me to change my ways to try to be a businessman, even more so. Opening up to this life, he’ll be discovering new things about himself. And also the way he’s being perceived by others, as he tries to help the community.
Cassius: My next question along those lines is with regards to the opening up that Bumpy is going through. How more involved was the research that you undertook to really give the best presence for Bumpy as he’s dealing with all of these changes in his friends and enemies?
FW: Because there’s so much prep and I’ve worked in the character for a couple of years now, I come from a new place. But I had already worked very hard on trying to figure out what was maybe privately like a core that was driving in him. So cracking the shell at the start of it, to see inside…my family makes me question things coming because I start to be concerned for their welfare. Right? Even more so. And they try to get me to get away from the danger.
So this is how I was working on it. I was just working on the emotional content of what it means. I realized we look at it a certain way, but my community is opposite from what I think I am. Everything happens to me, it also happens to a lot of the characters, but don’t be fooled – this journey is one of true education.
Cassius: Lastly, were there any favorite moments from this new season that you’ve felt that you were really portraying Bumpy as more than a one-dimensional figure?
FW: These include a number of times where I’m trying to explain to my wife why I have to do what I’m doing. I can’t leave. But if I pull out of what I’m doing, I have to do certain things that she may question. And he may question things himself. There’s a scene where she commissioned a painting of me. I think that when people like myself are portrayed in a painting, it’s to see what meaning it has. We really see that people we love are trying to save their lives, but it’s not so simple for me to just walk away from all the things I’m trying. And I think you see him trying to change but he is getting pulled back in.
The third season of Godfather of Harlem premieres Sunday, Jan. 15 on MGM Plus.