Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein’s new Epix series Godfather of Harlem tells the story of crime boss Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker), a figure in the early 1960s who returned from a ten-year jail stint to find his neighborhood overrun by the Italian mob.
One of the more intriguing true-life historical points played out in the series is his relationship with Malcolm X, as the two join forces to manage the social upheaval and mob war that looms. In the trailer, Malcolm X says to Johnson, “You have guns, but I have an army.”
“Bumpy has his hustle going, and Malcolm has his,” Brancato told Deadline following the TCA afternoon session.
Brancato shared with the TCA press corps that as part of the creators’ research about the duo’s unique relationship, they not only combed through books about Malcolm X and Johnson, but interviews were conducted with “surviving heirs” of the two. “The entire goal was to keep the spirit of the time and the characters… we sought to put their attitudes and specific words in their mouths,” said Brancato.
An interesting tidbit here is that actor Nigel Thatch is playing Malcolm X for the second time, his first being in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. In each project, Thatch played a different facet of Malcolm X’s life. In Selma, it’s a post-Mecca Malcolm X whereas in Godfather of Harlem it’s 1963 around the time he had a rift with Nation of Islam head Elijah Muhammad over his extramarital affairs with young Nation secretaries.
Whitaker, who also serves as EP, knew about Johnson from movies such as Hoodlum and American Gangster, but Godfather of Harlem piqued his interest further.
“I really didn’t realize his influence on the community,” said the Oscar winner, “I didn’t know about his family life, his connection to Malcolm X, and his (pursuit) going after our needs and our desires for a great life.”
Godfather of Harlem debuts on Sept. 29 at 10PM on Epix.