Godfather of Harlem Star Vincent D’Onofrio Talks Mob Rule

Vincent D'Onofrio sees hope in the gangster series Godfather of Harlem which resonates today.

On Epix‘s upcoming gangster series Godfather of Harlem, Vincent D’Onofrio plays Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, and Giancarlo Esposito plays Adam Clayton Powell Jr. They are two rising titans at cross purposes.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was New York’s first elected Congressman of African-American descent and was instrumental in pushing social and civil rights legislation under presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. Gigante was a rising star in the Genovese crime family, whose first father was Charles “Lucky” Luciano. Gigante is pushing back against the social changes affecting his upward mobility. Back in the golden age of racketeering, Lucky made a deal with Harlem mobster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, played by Forest Whitaker in Godfather of Harlem.

Johnson is a mythic figure, played twice by Laurence Fishburne, in Francis Ford Coppola‘s 1984 film The Cotton Club, in a character called Bumpy Rhodes, and again in the 1997 film Hoodlum. The deal between Luciano and Johnson is as legendary as the players themselves. Godfather of Harlem promises to tell the true story of Johnson, starting in the early 1960s when he finished serving 10 years for selling heroin to find his neighborhood is controlled by Genovese family.

“My character is one side of the story that right now is there to fuel conflict between the black and the white races,” Vincent D’Onofrio tells Den of Geek. “And so that’s what was mainly important for this particular character. That’s why it’s not completely biographical, although you can only assume that these people were racist.”

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read more: Donald Trump Blames Hollywood Movies for Racism

D’Onofrio recalls the tensions growing up in an Italian American neighborhood in Brooklyn, “There was tons of [racism] everywhere,” D’Onofrio says. “I was lucky to grow up in a very liberal family. My parents were very Bohemian. They didn’t stand for it, so I was lucky. But it was very present as it is now.”

Crime was one of the first industries to racially integrate, because, on the streets, cash is king. The architect of the real life crime commission, Lucky, had no problem promoting earners from any background. Bumpy was the associate who handled Harlem for the Luciano Family, a position he held when it became the Genovese Family. That deal changed after Gigante and Vito Genovese were convicted of heroin trafficking and Chin was sentenced to seven years in prison.

During the time of The Godfather of Harlem, Powell was Education and Labor Committee Chairman. But all characters are flawed in gangster series, and the most powerful African American Congressman was hit with corruption charges in 1967. In accordance with the setting, both Chin and Bumpy enter the series after their junk jail terms, and each of them are looking to score quick to make up for lost time. The pairstarted as leg-breakers and are both positioning themselves as bosses. When Bumpy got out of Alcatraz, he came home to a ticker tape parade, which erupted spontaneously on the streets of Harlem. Gigante was rewarded for his jail stint by being named caporegime. The former boxer Chin spent most of his time in the West Village, but he had friends uptown.

Gigante was so tight with the 116th Street Crew, which made its office at the Palma Boys Social Club on 416 East 115th Street, he angled its crew leader Anthony “Fat Tony” Salerno into position to head the Genovese family. It was a figurehead position because Gigante, who the cops thought was mentally ill, was crazy like a fox. Like Tony Soprano set up his uncle Junior to head the crime family on The Sopranos, Gigante let “Fat Tony” get all the glory and surveillance a top guy gets, while he hung out in his bathrobe and counted the money. (The name “Fat Tony” does have the distinction of being immortalized on The Simpsons in a recurring character played by ‎Joe Mantegna.)  

Johnson was already the de-facto crime boss of Harlem when he was sent up. Gigante was muscling in on new territory, which the rising mobster saw as Italian privilege. “There’s shit like that through the whole goddamn thing,'” D’Onofrio tells us. “He is so threatened that he has to state ‘You are not above me. Me above you, my friend.’ Like that’s intense. That’s as intense as our president fucking saying, ‘Go back home,’ because they’re people of color. They’re brown. Are you fucking kidding me?”

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D’Onofrio took that intensity home. “The truth is that some days when we were at our best on set, I went home, with a very bad feeling in my stomach because of the character,” D’Onofrio says. He sees the irony of the situation he is playing against the background of contemporary history.

“My character plays the threat of blackness rising while in real life, I am stressed by the threat of white supremacists rising,” D’Onofrio says. “As a white privileged male in society right now in New York, it’s fucking exhausting to find your place to step up and step up correctly so you are sending the right message against this shit that’s going on.”

D’Onofrio takes his concerns with him from the set. His wife has been an American “citizen since she was 15, but she grew up in Holland and she’s a European,” he explains. “She has become a strong activist in New York. My wife is the toughest, most practical woman you would ever meet. And when shithead got elected, she burst into tears.”

D’Onofrio sees small antidotes to political cautionary tales in Godfather of Harlem. “The whole gangster comparison to what’s going on with our leader right now is a really good comparison,” he says. “But it’s also a hopeful comparison because in my lifetime I have never seen a gangster with power get away with it forever.”

The Godfather of Harlem premieres on Sept. 29 on Epix.

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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 JFKRead more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.