EXCLUSIVE | 'Godfather of Harlem' creator Chris Brancato on why it would take many seasons to do justice to the essence of Bumpy Johnson
'It's isn't just about ruling with an iron fist, it's about restoring parity in a rather chaotic kingdom which is attributed to the Italian mafia. Plus, it's his choice, and he makes it personal'
Forest Whitaker's extensive movies and TV shows list marks a decorated Hollywood career and 'Godfather of Harlem' is a compelling fit for the man. The new Epix hour-long series set in the '60s saw him play a charismatic criminal, Bumpy Johnson (A real-life New York Crime boss), who's released from Alcatraz prison and returns to Harlem.
It's easy to start drawing parallels with 'The Godfather'. Although Whitaker is very unlike Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone, this is a man with some lofty goals and ambitions. It's isn't just about ruling with an iron fist, it's about restoring parity in a rather chaotic kingdom which is attributed to the Italian mafia. Plus, it's his choice, and he makes it personal.
And he was loved by his people, a factor that resonated throughout the series. However, there was more to it than just him being loved. In an exclusive with MEA WorldWide (MEAWW), series creator, Chris Brancato shed light on Bumpy being a household hero and his character evolution. "Well, I like to call the show the education of Bumpy because it's very easy if you're making a lot of money to give some of it away, and that doesn't necessarily mean you care about your community," Brancato opined.
"It may just mean you're generous and you have extra money. And what we're trying to do on the show is how Bumpy's conscious about his own role in the community, his own role in the civil rights for a goal we watch develop over time," he said.
Brancato also delved into how Bumpy was a community-minded man. "We were going to come to see him address the fact that most of the way that he makes money isn't good for the community. Definitely the drug dealing. And so this is something that we're going to watch our characters grapple with over the course of seasons. But I do think that bumpy was community-minded. I think that bumpy did do a lot of Robin hood. Actions like giving away turkeys at Christmas and such that endeared him to the community. But we want to try to go deeper than that and explore what effect the civil rights movement had on a gangster-like him," he said.
Painstaking research for sure and that served the team well. The showrunner also added that the character Big Dick Buster was actually a real person whom Bumpy employed to get revenge against rapists. "We had around certain people we could interview who were in their 80s and 90s who knew Bumpy personally. And so we spoke to a number of those people. And what we tried to do was, so for example, the character plus we have the dramatic license as writers to depict what we think Bumpy's attitudes and actions were. And we think we're being pretty accurate to the way he was," Brancato added.
Bumpy's evolution was not an overnight story and Brancato hoped the series would at least see six to seven seasons where the character learns these lessons incrementally. "At the beginning, he's still wrestling with his own responsibility as someone who wants to control Harlem, the criminal endeavors in Harlem, versus, "Hey. What am I doing to my community as I try to make my money and establish myself? Where, how far am I willing to go? How much do I recognize the pain that some of my actions cause other people? What's the collateral damage?"
Brancato even had an example he used from Episode 9: 'Rent Strike Blues'. "If you saw Episode 9 of last week, he is protecting Adam Clayton Powell. So bumpy is going to constantly be forced into decisions that hit his own selfish interests against the larger interests of the community. And sometimes he'll choose one, and sometimes we'll choose the other. But hopefully, that's on the progress towards really gaining an education."
(To lend an easy-to-read experience for our readers, the original interview has been split into multiple stories. Stay with us as we update our site with more of Brancato's valuable insights on 'Godfather of Harlem')