Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman appears to be a swan song for an era of the gangster film. But Epix’s Godfather of Harlem, which just closed out its premiere season, is keeping the genre fresh.
The series bridges generations of actors to tell the story of a mob kingpin who bridged the criminal worlds. Bumpy Johnson, played by Oscar-winning actor and director Forest Whitaker, ran Harlem under Mafia protection in a deal brokered by “Lucky” Luciano which lasted forty years. By the time he was 30, Johnson had spent almost half his life in prison. He went back in for a 15-year stretch in 1951 for conspiring to sell heroin. The series paints him as a standup guy, who did time rather than implicate his Mafia partners.
Johnson was a poet who contributed to the Harlem Renaissance during the apex of his criminal career. He also took care of the people in his neighborhood. Johnson paid for education and community upkeep above 110th Street. He provided holiday meals for the homeless. Bumpy went into prison for his last stretch as a flawed hero, often seen in the company of A-list stars of the time. He got out of prison around the time Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) began preaching common sense.
On the series, the deals Johnson made with Luciano are losing value because Italian mob boss Joe Bonanno (Chazz Palminteri) and Genovese capo Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, played by Vincent D’Onofrio, want a cut of the uptown take. The Prime Minister of the Underworld, Frank Costello (Paul Sorvino), a friend since the days of the original alliance, is his only go-between.
Godfather of Harlem comes from Narcos creators Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein. This is Eckstein’s second time telling the Bumpy Johnson story. He co-produced the 1997 film Hoodlum, which starred Laurence Fishburne in his second take on Johnson. That film told about the mafia alliance with the black gangsters of Harlem during prohibition. Godfather of Harlem is set in the sixties during the heroin epidemic. Eckstein spoke with Den of Geek about the impact Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson had on upper Manhattan, his legacy and the tales that can be told.
DEN OF GEEK: How do you see Godfather of Harlem‘s place in the history of the genre for TV?
PAUL ECKSTEIN: Well, I don’t do the list of the top 10 but I’ll tell you this: This is a story that I heard. These stories of Bumpy Johnson are stories that I heard as a youth because Bumpy put my grandmother through college back in the ’40s and ’50s. So for me growing up, I was always like, yo, there’s Italians, there’s Scarface, there’s all these gangsters, these Robin Hood characters. Where’s the one about the brother who’s been running Harlem for years?
And when he died is when Harlem really became a ghetto. Or at least that’s what my grandmother says and other people from that generation. So for me, our show is filling in a much needed piece of information on the history and lore of the struggle of how people come to this country and then are lifted up initially through crime. Whether it’s Italians, Irish, Jews, blacks -obviously there’s a difference with African-Americans, but that that piece of the lore is that authentic story of how crime has fit into America’s history. This is an essential piece of the puzzle that we’ve filled.
Luciano used to play chess with Johnson. What’s Frank Costello’s connection with him?
Bumpy initially met Lucky Luciano in prison in the ’30s, the same as Costello. Those connections started rumors that he looked out for both of them inside, and kept some people from fucking them up or hurting them. Those connections build from that point on, as our research has shown. They built a relationship that loosely was formed around Dutch Schultz in the numbers business and then moved into heroin and, in the ’40s, they did a lot of business together.
Boardwalk Empire renamed real-life Nucky Johnson to Nucky Thompson to make it easier to dramatize the story. Does using Bumpy’s real name restrict the action to real life events more than on a show like Boardwalk?
What’s always been challenging about the Bumpy Johnson story, unlike Narcos, where there’s a lot of real written material about Pablo Escobar. You can go into newspapers, a lot of people talked about it, and books talked about it. With Bumpy, there’s just not as much material that is defined. There are a couple of books, a couple of people who knew about him or knew him, wrote books about him. But for the most part, we’re relying on stories we hear from people who knew him, whether it’s his granddaughter, Margaret, who we spent a lot of time with, or Lena Horne, who I interviewed once. The historical accuracy, it’s just hard to get really, really specific, real, and authenticated with Bumpy.
All we know is we keep aiming for big stories that we know about, that we’ve heard over and over again, and aim for the essence of the truth, the most important parts of what happened there.
Is there a cliquishness to working with a cast of actors who represent a generation Italian gangsters?
Look, one of the greatest things that I’m so blessed with as I stated, these are incredible actors. They’re masters of their craft. When you talk about Vinnie [D’Onofrio] he’s a great acting teacher, he’s an incredible director. Forest adds his own kind of strength in spreading his talents in a way that everybody can get a taste of. Giancarlo Esposito comes on to a set, and he just takes over in the most beautiful, loving and creative way. I don’t think there was a distinction really between the Italian world and the black world, at least in terms of performance or how we’re getting into the performances. But obviously there’s great distinction in sort of the characters themselves. What their intentions are, what they’re shooting for, what their motivations are, and what their history and culture it’s about.
I think if anything, that’s what the fun part is, is focusing in on the differences and similarities between the cultures. You got to remember that Harlem first was settled by the Italians, right? So that’s what’s interesting. I was like, wait, hey, everybody thinks this is a black neighborhood. It is now, but it wasn’t always. Understanding that dynamic and that history, it’s just illuminating and fun stuff to find themes on, and fun stuff to really see how these characters bang up against each other. A big essential part of both D’Onofrio’s character, and Bumpy Johnson is just that they both have daughters.
This is the second time Nigel Thatch has played Malcolm X. Do you find a consistency in the way he’s doing the character from the movie to the show?
Look, I think Nigel dove so deep on this role, I can’t imagine he did this with Selma. I just don’t think he had the time or the opportunity to. Obviously the role is much smaller in Selma. But he killed it. He killed it. He would dive in so deep and get there so hard. We were blessed also with having great people around on our set as consultants who knew Malcolm, who would talk with him. He was able to access this fountain of information and real life experience.
We had a couple of people from Boston who were Malcolm’s cousins come down, and they couldn’t stay on the set. It was too emotional. Freaked them out too much how much Nigel had it. Not just the way he looks or the way he sounds, but had him, tapped into the essence of who this guy was as a person, not as the iconic Malcolm X, but also as a person. Maybe what I’m most in awe about with what Nigel did with the role is how much he really found it, man. He found this connection to this person that everybody is resonating with. Everybody. He’s one of the standouts for sure.
Forest Whitaker is one of my favorite actors. He did an eye twitch in a scene which didn’t look like acting. Is there a difference in how he internalizes his physical acting?
For sure. He’s an extraordinary artist. The way he prepared for this role, the way he found it. Yeah, that’s what’s cool when I keep saying I’m surrounded by brothers. I got Nigel over here. I got Giancarlo doing his thing over here with Vinnie. And then you got this Buddha, genius person, Forest Whitaker, who’s coming to the role with such a depth, full level of preparation and understanding, and thinking, and nuances, and crafting and shaping this character. That’s a masterpiece because that’s what he does. He can’t do anything else except a complete and total role. When you say, in essence, what it’s like working with Forest Whitaker, it’s like there’s nothing else like it.
Is there any improvisation on the set while you’re shooting?
A little bit. We find stuff on set at times and physicalize things in maybe different ways than what was conceived of in the script. But generally, we stay close to what we write. Not that anyone says, “No, we said yes, not yay.” There’s none of that. But we write pretty good scripts and people dig it, so they say what we asked them to.
Mafia mythology always maintained they didn’t deal heroin and would shoot people in their ranks that did. In the series, they’re doing it and keeping it in particular neighborhoods. What’s actually going on in this time period?
Look, the real world is not a pretty world. There was a lot of heroin and opiate addiction exploding in the early ’60s. That’s real. The French Connection was beginning and forming there. It was the first time that heavy amounts of heroin that had been processed and ready for good junkies was really infiltrating all of America. 90% of it came in to Pleasant Avenue in Harlem. There was a lot of ugliness in Harlem. What I think separates what was going on in ’63, ’64, ’65 and what happened in ’69, ’70 and ’71, is the extent in rapidness of the crisis, not only in Harlem but throughout America.
In Harlem in ’64 and ’65 there’d be these pockets, these places where people who were junkies would go. Those places were isolated, whether it’s the high end night bar, clubs where jazz musicians played or, mostly, on the street. The hard part, and if you read books like Claude McKay or people who were writing about the African-American experience at that time, you know that that addiction or crisis, much like the opioid crisis today, decimated many families. So the real impact you would feel and see on the street, that I can tell 50 years later, is how much that was really happening and how much those people who are drug addicts were not considered sick. They were considered demons. There’s something wrong with them. There was no culture or society of addiction. Addicts just became zombies on the street. That kid who you brought up that was now stealing from you has just become a monster. I think that psychic effect was also another level that’s very different from what’s going on now.
What are some of your favorite gangster movies?
Well, geez, I’ve watched Scarface a gazillion times, easily over a hundred times. Obviously, The Godfather is a bible. When I look at a scene I go, “Are we doing Godfather of Goodfellas? Are we doing this epic, big, mythic story that is Godfather? Or we’re doing this gritty street stuff that’s Goodfellas?” Chris and I are always debating about, “Are we doing Godfather or Goodfellas?” My tops are those classic ones. But hey man, I’m a big fan of Departed, for example. I’m a big fan of crime stories in general, but I think the big classic gangster ones are those, and my movie, I love, of course. I can’t really put that on my list, but I should. King of New York. Abel [Ferrara] was killing it with all them crazy fools, Fishburne, Giancarlo’s in that too. I love that movie. So now we’re just adding to it with Forest.
What do you think we’ll learn today from the history of this story of the 60s?
The biggest joy that I have from the way this show is coming out, when I look at the reactions that I see, is how many people go find out who Adam Clayton Powell is. They look at all the legislation that he passed for civil rights. When they say, “Hey man, I’m going to go make sure my kids read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” or “I’m going to go in and look” at all the historical events that we’re presenting. Wait until season two. ’64 was crazy with the stuff that went down in our country and all over the world, right?
When people then look at all these historical events and these people in it, and they see a correlation between now and then, they go, “Huh, wow, we’re dealing with this opiate crisis just like they did. Wow, man, they had a crazy divided country. This isn’t the first time there’s been people who are so politically opposed. It’s been normal forever.” When people have that, that’s it. When you talk about history, my biggest hope is that we continue to ignite this curiosity in people that they will go look at the history and discover who all these people are, and what went down, and what happened.
Because we in America, we don’t know poo about our history. And it really bothers me more and more because I see the ignorance every day, and all you got to do is go pick up a history book. But you’re not going to do that, so you get to watch my TV show.
The same with Narcos. Even if you read at the beginning and know that Chris and I are masters of making great drama out of being close to the facts, you should be then going to find out and make your own determination of what really happened. If that happens, then I win, I’ve done my job. I can look to grandma and say, “Yeah, see grandma? Those things you told me? Didn’t forget.”
Godfather of Harlem episode 10, the last of season, aired on Dec. 1 on Epix.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.