The gangster history forgot

Set in drug-ravaged Harlem during the early ’60s, Godfather of Harlem is based on real events. It’s set during a time when the civil rights movement and the criminal underworld collided. Locally respected crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (played by Forest Whitaker) teams up with activist Malcolm X to take back Harlem from the Italian mobsters of the Genovese family.

Who was “Bumpy” Johnson?

Nicknamed for his slightly misshapen skull, Bumpy might have been a convicted criminal, but for the residents of Harlem, he offered protection and relief from poverty. He is played by Forest Whitaker, who is also executive producer on the series.

The Oscar-winner needs no introduction, but this will be his first stint on the small screen since his 2011 appearance in Criminal Minds. His commanding performance as both enforcer and protector of his ’hood is not far from that of Marlon Brando’s famous portrayal of “Godfather” Vito Corleone, with a simmering impulse for violence always bubbling at the surface.

Bumpy was a different class of criminal, and his connection to convicted-criminal-turned-preacher-and-activist Malcolm X is not the only surprising fact of his fascinating life to arise in this retelling.

A published poet and fashionable dresser, he famously hung out with stars like Billie Holiday and Sugar Ray Robinson and was romantically linked with singer Lena Horne and Vanity Fair managing editor Helen Lawrenson. In Godfather of Harlem, he socialises with a young Muhammad Ali, then still known as Cassius Clay. Bumpy’s commitment to his people was his true redeeming feature.

Bringing Harlem to life

Many hit songs from the ’60s feature on the soundtrack, helping the show to capture that promise of change that would go on to ignite a movement. Award-winning executive music producer Swizz Beatz contributes a modern soundtrack to update the feel – he told Billboard that his aim was to bring some “global vibes” to the series.

A prolific screenwriter, director and author of seven novels, John Ridley is probably best known for his Oscar-winning screenplay for 12 Years a Slave. He took the helm as director of the first episode of Godfather of Harlem, bringing his considerable experience and signature touch to the series.

Although undoubtedly a socially motivated series, Godfather of Harlem is also a brutal gangster saga. Veteran actors such as Giancarlo Esposito (Better Call Saul), Vincent D’Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent) Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas) and Chazz Palminteri (A Bronx Tale) give the mobster scenes a menacing, authentically Italian-American feel.

Godfather of Harlem starts 15 October 2019 on Showmax, with new episodes every Tuesday
Also available on 1Magic (103) on DStv

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