Forest Whitaker is returning to the TV screen in his first full-time series role since “Criminal Minds: Suspect Behavior” went off the air in 2011. And this time, he’s tackling the part of real-life mob boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson.
In the first episode of the Epix series “Godfather of Harlem,” viewers will instantly come to realize why the series focusing on Johnson, who was known as a fearsome mob leader in Harlem, New York, between the 1930s and early 1960s, earned that title.
The debut John Ridley-directed episode picks up in 1963 when Bumpy arrives at his new home after his release from Alcatraz after an 11-year prison stint. As soon as he enters his apartment, he’s greeted with a surprise welcome party thrown by his wife. There, he’s inundated with a host of requests to fund things, this including a mother’s hope that he’ll pay her son’s way through Morehouse and a desire to have the leaking roof a church repaired. But those issues are small compared to what Bumpy really has to handle: retaining control of 110th to 160th streets in Harlem from the control of Italian mob boss Vincent “Chin” Gigante. (Gigante actually was incarcerated in 1963 and would not be paroled until 1965.)
In order to do that, he winds up teaming up with Malcolm X, who has his own battle with Rev. Adam Clayton Powell, a longrunning Harlem congressman. And while Bumpy and Malcolm clash, it’s no match for what Bumpy ends up encountering with Gigante of the Genovese crime family.
The Genoveses have ravaged Bumpy’s turf by getting residents hooked on or selling heroin. So much so that it winds up wrapping up a mother’s black musician son in Bumpy’s crimes. The son, Teddy, goes on to run off with Genovese’s daughter, Stella, who gave him her father’s dope. Their star-crossed-lover tale isn’t the focus, but it does play a part in whether or not Bumpy is able to get the Italian mob to lay off his territory.
“Bumpy Johnson is crime boss, he’s an intellect, he was a person of power in his community,” Whitaker explained in a featurette of his real-life character. “I had to try to understand the dichotomies of who he is.”
Whitaker expertly balances Bumpy’s life as a torn family man who faced abuse while behind bars as well as the take-no-prisoners crime boss he is in the streets. And a twist moment revealed at the end of the premiere will leave audiences eager to see what’s next — whether they’re fans of crime dramas or not.
“Godfather of Harlem” debuts Sunday, Sept. 29, on the Epix channel and the app.