Clash of Titans
An EPIX series inspired by a real-life 1960s power struggle unites a trio of powerful performers.
There's a lot going on in Godfather of Harlem.
The big-budget period drama, which debuted September 29 on EPIX, covers plenty of territory, including turf wars between the Italian mob and African- American gangsters, drugs, civil rights and popular music. The series also looks at how all that intersects with historical figures like Malcolm X and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
But to showrunner Chris Brancato, Godfather is really a story of immigrants.
"When you can't get a medical degree or law license or there are barriers to entry in a country, you turn to crime," says the writer–producer, who cocreated Godfather with Paul Eckstein. (The two know something about crime sagas: Brancato was a cocreator of Netflix's Narcos, where Eckstein was a producer.)
"Immigrants and second-class-citizen groups typically climb the criminal ladder, then buy political power, which allows them legitimate power," Brancato says. "Bumpy Johnson is a gangster without swagger — because Bumpy Johnson is a businessman."
Playing Johnson, Forest Whitaker embodies a quiet menace as he faces off with both Vincent D'Onofrio as mob boss Vincent "The Chin" Gigante and Giancarlo Esposito as Powell.
"Bumpy was a poet, a master chess player and a purveyor of power," says Whitaker, who also executive-produced. "He gave scholarships to kids in need. The fact that he was a drug dealer and very powerful — that was what interested me. You watch him wrestle with his own conscience. It's like 'the education of Bumpy Johnson,' on screen."
Johnson's name may not be well known outside Harlem, but to locals he was a complicated, almost mythic man of his times (he died in 1968). After rising to significance as a mob boss and bookmaker, he spent time in Alcatraz on a drug conspiracy charge. Godfather picks up as Johnson exits prison and works to wrest power back from the Italians, who have taken over Harlem in his absence.
It's a clash of immigrant factions — though, as Brancato makes clear, African Americans were "involuntary" immigrants. The series opens in 1963 and will advance one year each season. Yet from the stories it tells to the soundtrack — a mix of period classics, new hip-hop and world music — Godfather holds up a mirror to modern-day politics even as it offers a history lesson.
"The stories we'll be dealing with really resonate with what's going on today, with Black Lives Matter, all those movements — people trying to define their sense of self and place," says Whitaker, whose honors include one Emmy and one Oscar. "The five families and the mob represent power and subjugation, and you see what Bumpy was up against, just to get a little piece of the pie."
To pull off those stories, Brancato needed heavyweight actors on board. He found them in Whitaker, D'Onofrio and Esposito, all award-winning veterans who knew exactly how to approach their outsized character roles.
Whitaker actually came with the Godfather package: he'd been working with Johnson's granddaughter's godson, Markuann Smith, on the project. Smith, who is both an executive producer and acts in the series, had been trying to get the story told for 18 years. (Exec-producing with Brancato, Eckstein, Whitaker and Smith are Nina Yang Bongiovi, James Acheson and Joe Chappelle.)
"Forest is a huge draw for other actors," Brancato says. "He's a gentle man, no ego — and that trickles down. We needed an actor with the force and talent to stand up to Forest as his adversary."
Emmy-nominated D'Onofrio, who'd worked with Brancato on Law & Order: Criminal Intent, provided the necessary gravitas and heft to play Gigante. He says he and Whitaker shared a real " simpatico " feeling. "We were doing some difficult stuff, and to be doing it with him was a comfortable place to be," he says.
That "difficult stuff" goes to the heart of racism, and for D'Onofrio, who says he "grew up in a very liberal family," having to play a slur-spouting racist was a real challenge.
"Awkward isn't the word for it," he says. "It's hardcore. My character is really a racist and a gangster. But everyone I talked to agreed that it had to be a full-out performance. If you try to soften it or make it acceptable, you're doing the wrong thing." Still, he adds, "It takes a toll on your heart."
The idea to cast two-time Emmy nominee Esposito (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) as Powell originated from a surprising source: EPIX president Michael Wright.
"Chris and I had been dying to work together for a long time — the creative energy was terrific with him," Esposito says. "Chris had mentioned someone for the role, and [Wright] said, 'I don't know that actor, but I do know Giancarlo Esposito, and he'd be terrific.' Chris fell out of his chair."
In assembling this triumvirate of stars, Godfather harks back to its mission statement: to tell a different kind of immigrant story. Esposito is the son of Italian and African-American parents, Whitaker is African American and D'Onofrio's heritage is Italian. All three appreciate that the project resonates both historically and with contemporary sociopolitical issues, making it more than just another crime story.
"We're living in complicated times," D'Onofrio says. "There's division in our country — and it's time to tell the truth and shine a light on it. This show is honest about it."
"Am I concerned that there are only stories with a nefarious nature [told about African Americans and Italians]? Yes," Esposito says. "But in telling this story we see an African-American politician who will not give in to Bumpy Johnson. He will not be swayed. This story can bust the stereotypes. It's important precisely because it's not stereotypical."
Brancato says he wants this "historical speculative fiction" series to illuminate America today. He hopes audiences will take away not just a re-education about an important slice of black American history, but also a new perspective on current racial and political conflicts.
"Talking about the past allows us to draw lessons from it and apply them to the present," he says. "What is the cost of the gangster life? The connection between politics and gangsterism — it's never been more present."
This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 9, 2019
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