Bumpy Johnson was a notorious 1960s drug kingpin, but Paul Eckstein remembers him as a philanthropist. “My grandmother was put through college by Bumpy Johnson,” the filmmaker tells The Post. “She learned the skills to be a secretary and bookkeeper … If you were from New York, from that era, you heard stories about him.”
Both sides of Johnson — cold-blooded villain and neighborhood hero — are explored in “Godfather of Harlem.” Premiering Sunday night on Epix, it stars Forest Whitaker, 58, who won an Oscar for portraying Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland.” Though Whitaker initially intended to produce the limited series, he signed on to star when the script deepened.
“We shaped the character all the way through,” Whitaker tells The Post. “Sort of ‘The Education of Bumpy Johnson.’ How his own actions caused chaos in his own life.”
When we first meet him, in 1963, Bumpy’s coming back home to the Lenox Terrace apartments after spending 11 years at Alcatraz. The streets he used to run have been overtaken by the mob, represented here by Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio), a foul-mouthed racist who underestimates Johnson’s ability to play catch-up. Playing Chin was a challenge, D’Onofrio says.
“Half of our crew was black, 75 percent of our cast was black, [and] I’m saying the N-word for the whole day,” the actor tells The Post. “If that doesn’t leave you with a sick feeling in your stomach, I don’t know what does.”
Johnson clashes with the mob throughout the first four episodes as Gigante and his crew try to thwart his desire to encroach upon their territory. If Johnson doesn’t get what he wants, he whips out an 8-inch switchblade. An early, extremely brutal encounter with a naked mobster named Zambrano may leave viewers feeling faint.
“He’s savage, but he has a really clear code line,” Whitaker says. “Zambrano tried to kill him. There’s no question that he should kill that guy. The only question was, ‘Would he get blamed? Would he get caught because he was a made guy?’ ”
“Godfather of Harlem” also depicts Johnson’s involvement with socialite Amy Vanderbilt (Joanne Kelly) and such civil rights giants as Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), Adam Clayton Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) and a young Cassius Clay (Deric Augustine). Johnson’s drug-addicted daughter, Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), is treated in Malcolm X’s detox center.
How much of the story is true?
“This is a work of historical fiction,” says co-creator Chris Brancato (“Narcos”). “It’s based on relationships we know did exist. We did find research that suggested Bumpy and [Vanderbilt] had an affair. Bumpy and Malcolm did play chess on Sundays. We have that on good authority. They knew each other back in the 1940s when Malcolm was running the streets as a hustler … The goal of the show is to capture the essence or spirit of the times … What we’re doing is trying to tell a story about the collision of crime and civil rights.”
Brancato and Whitaker went uptown to talk to the real Margaret Johnson, the kingpin’s daughter, and his contemporaries, now in their late 80s. That’s how the filmmakers learned of Big Dick Buster (Hank Strong), whom Bumpy kept on retainer to administer rough justice to men who raped black women. In one scene, a security guard who rapes Johnson’s daughter after she’s caught shoplifting is bent over a chair as Mr. Buster approaches, unzipping his pants.
Johnson died in 1968, at 62. A second season of “Godfather of Harlem” will move the action of the first forward one year, to 1964. “You’ll watch close-cropped hair grow into Afros,” Brancato says. “You’ll see the Black Panthers come to Harlem. You’ll see young men by the thousands pulled out of Harlem to go to Vietnam.”
Whitaker says the series gave him a new appreciation of TV. “I think people are just looking for great writers and great projects,” he says. “I think the barriers between mediums and the sort of hierarchy has shifted, so now it’s just about great product.”
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