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Forest Whitaker Interview: Godfather of Harlem

Forest Whitaker is back on television with Godfather of Harlem, an EPIX original series about real-life gangster Bumpy Johnson, who returns from a decade-long stint in prison to find his Harlem community under the control of the Italian mob. Set in 1963, the series features thrilling mafia drama and thrills, all set against the backdrop of social upheaval and racial tensions that defined the Civil Rights Movement of the era.

While promoting Godfather of Harlem, Whitaker sat down with Screen Rant to discuss his work on the show, from his work on-camera as an actor, to his duties behind-the-scenes as a producer. He talks about studying the life and times of Bumpy Johnson in an effort to provide an authentic performance, as well as his responsibility playing such a complex and deep historical figure, whose good and bad traits would be endlessly judged by historians over the subsequent decades.

Forest Whitaker and Nigel Thatch in Godfather of Harlem

Harlem, 1963. It's a period that's almost mythical, especially today, looking back. And looking at the show, it looks like a completely different city. Can you talk a little bit about some of the resources you drew on to learn about that era, because you were just a little itty bitty baby at the time.

We started looking at doing research on the history of the time and the place. With Bumpy Johnson, actually, his wife had written an autobiography. You know, Mamie. And there was some poetry, some prison records and stuff that he had written, I was able to look at. I was able to meet with some of the guys in Harlem that knew him or worked with him as mobsters. Like Chisolm and Junebug. And just to put that all together, with the politics of the time, the music of the day, and he started to come alive for me.

The music, especially, is such a big part of the show and the era. Did you have any favorites that you wanted to see, that you were like, "Do you think we can get this song?" Or was that someone else's department and you were just kinda hoping for the best?

No, no, as a producer, I was dealing with the music from the very beginning. When we first approached Swizz Beatz to do the soundtrack, the soundtrack was really important, because it puts people in a space where they can recognize the contemporary parallels and stuff. There were maybe 14 or so original songs written for the show. Every week, there's, like, two new songs that are reflecting the day, and they were written specifically for this show. They kind of allowed us to live in today as a mirror of yesterday.

Vincent Donofrio Nigel Thatch and Forest Whitaker in Godfather of Harlem

When you're playing this character who's based on... You mentioned all the research you did to get into character. But you're still crafting your vision of this character. Do you ever come across any lines that you want to or don't want to cross? Where you want to be authentic, but still want to put your own spin on it? How do you handle that conundrum?

I don't think it's been as big of a conundrum. He was a quiet mobster, crime lord. There's very few photographs, I think we found maybe five photographs of him. No video, no interviews, nothing. So in that respect, I'm looking at his pictures and I'm studying what people said about him and then constructing him from that. There's a lot of room. There's been other characters I've played where people are more familiar with their behavior. I think the thing that might be confusing for people, or be different from what people think is, I like playing him more like a businessman. I play him more like a banker, you know? Not as much, like, this loud, rambunctious mobster. I think that's something that I found through reading his little bit of poetry and through looking at the things that were written about him, and the letters that he wrote, where he talked about being a businessman.

These figures are so complicated. On one hand, they're gangsters, you're invoking The Godfather, just in the title. But they're also people, they're leaders, they can be positive role models. Is that a challenge, or is that the goal?

I think the complexity of it is part of the goal and the challenge. I think we want to show, what were the options that were available for him to be able to excel and rise up in society? He found a way, through the only hole that he could see, which was the criminal world, you know? The question is, once you've made that choice, if you're doing destructive things to the community, what does it mean? What is your responsibility to the community if you do those types of things? I think those questions arise through the show.

More: Godfather of Harlem Teaser Trailer

Godfather of Harlem airs Sundays on EPIX.

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