Even though he wants to help his community, Bumpy Johnson is an anti-hero. He is a criminal capable of extreme violence who is visiting horror on Harlem through the sale of drugs.
Executive produced and written by Chris Brancato, EPIX’s Godfather of Harlem chronicles the complicated criminal life of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, one of the most notorious African-American mobsters. In 1963, Bumpy is released from an 11-year sentence in Alcatraz on a drug conspiracy charge. Upon his return to Harlem, he realizes that his drug turf has been taken over by the mafia. Bumpy, played by Forest Whitaker, butts heads with Vincent “The Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio), the newly-minted head of the Genovese crime family. Heroin is the money drug, and Bumpy knows he has to control the distribution and the supply. The period crime drama also depicts Bumpy going head-to-head with Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito). In supporting roles, Paul Sorvino plays mob fixer Frank Costello, and Chazz Palminteri plays mob boss Joe Bonanno.
Brancato also wrote the 1997 feature film Hoodlum, about a younger Bumpy Johnson (played by Laurence Fishburne back in the day) and his battles with infamous gangster Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth). In Godfather of Harlem, Brancato revisits Bumpy as an older man fighting to regain his form.
The Fix: When I interviewed you about your experience making Narcos, you described Pablo Escobar as a psychopath. Would you describe Bumpy Johnson in the same manner?
Chris Brancato: John, that’s a great question. Unlike Pablo, Bumpy was not a psychopath nor a sociopath. He was a multifaceted character and a complex human being. Yes, he could be violent, and he could deliver beat downs and such when they were needed, but he did not thrive off of the violence as Pablo did. Any violence that Bumpy committed was predicated on business or maintaining his turn.
In contrast, Escobar was fine with blowing planes out of the sky. He did not mind bombing bookstores and causing widespread havoc. He repeatedly caused the death of innocent people, and that’s something Bumpy Johnson would never do.
Like Pablo, Bumpy reached out to his community, helping people so they would help and protect him. Today, how would you describe his community outreach efforts? Was it pure self-interest, or did he truly care about the people of Harlem?
In Narcos, we made a fascinating comment about the nature of drug money. When you have made so much money that you have bought everything you could think of buying, then it’s easy to give it to the people. You don’t need it. Escobar certainly had leftist tendencies, and he did build barrios for the poor. Some of those feelings were likely genuine, but a lot of what he did was self-aggrandizement. Escobar wanted to raise his stature in the eyes of the people of Colombia in general. He wanted to be viewed as a public figure.
In contrast, from the beginning of his life, Bumpy believed that education was the step ladder to success. He spent a fair portion of his life in prison, and he was extremely well-read. He promoted the values of education throughout his life. My college friend Paul Eckstein first told me about Bumpy Johnson. Paul is the co-writer on the pilot and the co-creator of Godfather of Harlem. His grandmother was helped by Bumpy Johnson; this African-American mobster paid for her to go to secretarial school. Bumpy also paid the college tuition of the father of the playwright Lynn Nottage, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for two of her plays, Ruined (2009) and Sweat (2015).
Bumpy was all about education. Although he was well-known for his public gestures like handing out turkeys on Thanksgiving, his desire to improve his community extended well beyond such gestures. Bumpy wanted people to have the advantages he had lacked. He truly believed that education was vital to success.
Heroin is a bigger drug today nationwide than it was in Bumpy Johnson’s time. What do you think Bumpy would have said about such a development?
I have an interesting statistic to toss at you in regards to that question. In the 1960s and 70s, during the heroin crisis in Harlem, 90% of the heroin addicts were black, and 10% were white. Also, 90% were men, and only 10% were women. In today’s opioid epidemic, it’s actually reversed. 90% of the opioid addicts are white, 10% are black, and the male-female ratio is cut right in half, fifty-fifty. It’s a development that is hugely due to the prescription painkiller origins of the current crisis and the easy availability of OxyContin and morphine-based pain medication. Of course, it’s the same active ingredient. When people get tired of paying $60 for black market OxyContin, they might as well get a $20 bag of street heroin, which will last just as long, if not longer.
The show tries to suggest that Bumpy’s criminality was due to lack of opportunity. He wanted to go to city college as a young man, but they wouldn’t accept him. He tried to be a lawyer, but he was told it wasn’t going to happen. He was left between a rock and a hard place. Feeling there was no other choice, he turned to crime.
Thus, one of the themes of the show is how second-class, impoverished communities use crime as a step ladder. Crime provides money that leads to political, social, and cultural power. Such criminality continues until that second-class community is woven into the tapestry of the American dream. Crime does not require a college degree, and there is no barrier to starting a career as a criminal. You just have to be willing to take the risk. The fundamental precept that the American dream is built on crime beats at the very heart of the series.
Back Row: Chris Brancato, Forest Whitaker, Paul Eckstein; Front Row: Vincent D’Onofrio, Paul Sorvino, Chazz Palminteri (Courtesy of David Lee_Epix)
When the five families of the American Cosa Nostra were first formed, dealing drugs—particularly heroin—was forbidden. Drug dealing could get a contract taken out on a made man’s life. In Godfather of Harlem, the mafia is neck-deep in the heroin trade. How and why did that happen?
The fundamental word to use when talking about any criminal organization, including the Italian mafia, is greed. Movies like The Godfather emphasize that dealing in drugs goes against the rules of honor and so forth, but this is a mythic portrayal of the Italian mob. Goodfellas is much closer to the reality of what was happening. It’s more realistic in its depiction of the venality and violence of these men. The lack of honor of these men is much closer to the truth.
Yes, throughout history, mafia dons have given lip service to not wanting to deal with drugs. However, it’s believed that Lucky Luciano established the heroin pipeline from Turkey to Lebanon to Marseille to New York City when he was exiled and living in Sicily.
I have a book of every mug shot the FBI ever took of someone that was reputed to be in the mafia. If you look through it, 70% of the charges behind those mugshots were for narcotics in one form or another. It’s specious to suggest that the mob wasn’t interested in the heroin trade because of some kind of honorable notion that we don’t distribute drugs. It was all about money, and the most money was in the drug trade.
The prime fear to face in regards to drugs was not dishonor, but long prison sentences. When a mafia soldier is faced with a three-year prison sentence, they’ll keep their mouth shut. When they’re faced with a thirty-year prison sentence, however, they’ll rat out on their superiors to save themselves. Henry Hill from Goodfellas is the perfect archetype of that reality.
One of my early Facebook friends was Henry Hill. He mainly was using Facebook to sell his paintings, which overflowed with mafia themes like guns firing and bottles of liquor and fast cars.
I’ll tell you a funny Henry Hill story. I had the great pleasure of having breakfast with Nicholas Pileggi, the writer of Wiseguy, the book that was the source for Goodfellas. Nick told me that when the book came out, he got a message from Henry Hill that said, “I need more copies of the book. I need like a hundred copies.” At this time, Henry Hill was in the witness protection program. Nick told him that he could get him copies, but he didn’t know where to send them.
It turns out that Henry Hill was staying at the Mandarin Oriental in Hawaii, a well-known fancy hotel. It was like the exact opposite of the Witness Protection Program. Henry Hill wanted to give out signed copies of the book to women at the bar so he could get laid. Of course, Henry was telling these women that the book was about him and that he wrote it. He told Nick that the book was working like magic, so he needed a bunch more sent to him.
Okay, next question: Drugs, crime, and family play a significant role in the series. I don’t mean crime families, but actual family life. Even in the families of the criminals, drugs lead to trauma. Can you talk about the trauma of drug abuse in families as a theme of the show?
Since Harlem was wrenched with huge heroin addiction problems, families were torn asunder. Crime was out of control with family members stealing from their own homes. During that time, one guy told me you had to have three locks on your door. Addiction was a horrific blight on the community.
At the same time, Bumpy saw it as a commodity that was going to be there whether he was involved with it or not. He’d rather be the one organizing the trade than the Italians. He wanted to keep the money in the community, meaning in his pocket as well. At the same time, he has an addicted daughter. We bring home the storyline that the guy who sells dope has a drug addict in his own family, and sometimes under his own roof. In the course of the series, we plan to move into that territory where the dichotomy gets exposed, and Bumpy’s role gets challenged.
You have to remember that back in 1963, there wasn’t the lexicon of recovery that we have today. Dope addicts were looked at as fiends. In other words, you were stupid if you touched that drug because it gets you hooked. In that regard, Bumpy had a great deal of discipline on a personal level. He was never a drug user, and his favored drink when he went out was ginger ale.
At the same time, Malcolm X, who is a major character in the series, knew firsthand about the seriousness of the drug problem. Part of the recruitment process of the Nation of Islam was taking junkies off the street and helping them to recover. He then was able to bring them into the fold. Saving people from themselves is a great recruitment tool.
In terms of family, when you’re doing a gangster show, you have characters who are morally compromised and who are anti-heroes. What you need to do to make them relatable is give them family lives. You need to know the people who are affected by the gangster and his choices who aren’t fellow criminals.
In Godfather of Harlem, we spend a lot of time focusing on Bumpy’s family. We make a real effort to create three-dimensional African American women characters. They often get short shrift in these kinds of shows, particularly period pieces. We couldn’t let that happen because, at the time of our story, the backbone of the community in Harlem were the women. From the very first time we sat down, Paul Eckstein and I made it a priority to represent complex, fascinating, and diverse women from the African American community of that period. Family life, particularly their relationship with the women in their life, help us to tap into the gangster as a real human being.
In Parade, co-creator Paul Eckstein said, “A lot of what we were dealing with in the ‘60s is exactly what we’re dealing with today.” What can we learn from the history portrayed in Godfather of Harlem?
I believe the contemporary parallels of the two drug crises will make the series relevant for our time. Also, without giving any spoilers, we have a story of recovery in the first season that is very powerful. It will take many twists and turns over the course of the series. Paul and I often talk about the show as the ongoing education of Bumpy Johnson. Despite the fact that Forest Whitaker is playing him as true intellect, even though this gangster wants to help his community, Bumpy is an anti-hero. He’s a criminal capable of extreme violence who is visiting horror on Harlem through the sale of drugs.
Over time, incrementally, Bumpy is going to become more conscious of his own actions and their effect on the community at large. He also will start to breathe the fresh air of the Civil Rights Movement that is happening all around him. For me, Bumpy’s journey to a deeper realization and even redemption over time will be the home run of the show. I want to show how a criminal figure changes as he becomes more aware of the consequences of his actions and how they negatively affect his community.