Forget the Bloods and the Crips, Harlem was run by real gangsters in the 40s, 50s, and 60s.
It is hard to imagine the Ellsworth Raymond Johnson (Margaret and Willie’s boy) would grow from being a hot-headed but loving South Carolinian into one of the most notorious crime bosses in American history, but it is true. So true that Hollywood has tried to capture his story over and over again. Who is “Bumpy Johnson,” and what can young Hip-Hoppers like gang-related Tekashi 6ix9ine learn from his experience? Was Bumpy Johnson more like a Nipsey Hussle than we have seen on the screen?
As we check out the new EPIX series, Godfather of Harlem, Forrest Whitaker contends that there is a lot that we can learn if we move past a familiar snapshot of Johnson, and see him for the whole complicated human being that he was.
The Source: Who was Bumpy Johnson to you, Mr. Whitaker?
Forest Whitaker: Bumpy Johnson was an interesting crime lord but that was not all he was. He helped the community. It was not just about money and that is what drew me to the character. In the story that we tell we explore all kinds of aspects of his life: there is a civil rights story there and also a story about a criminal. In the series, we get to explore different sides of him as a person.
You are the producer of the series. Did you know anything about him before you decided to make an adaptation of his life?
I didn’t know much about him other than the fact that he was gangster and a mobster. But I learned so much. In our adaptation, we get to see him with his family wife and kids. We worked with his daughter. We get to see that yes, he relationships with notable mobsters like Charles “Lucky” Luciano (Genovese Crime Family), but he also was in relationship with hoodlum turned activist, Malcolm X.
How did the project come to you as a producer?
The concept for the show came to me first. Then as a producer went and got the writers involved to create the script. And we did the work and the research because we did not want to just show him like others had portrayed him. There were so many more layers to him. He was a poet. He was a chess player. A father and husband. He has many different dimensions to him and that was attractive to me as a producer. The Bumpy we wanted to create was indeed a street king but was a different kind of boss. He was a businessman and a community man.
Where did the get the information from? What kind of research did you all do to create such a full depiction of Johnson?
We spoke to and interviewed people that worked with him like Junebug, his former bodyguard. He is still around. We spoke to his daughter, Margaret and Professor Small who is a Harlem historian and ran the mosque after Malcolm left.
What can the Hip-Hop community learn from this story? And why was it important to use Hip-Hop artists in the score?
Hip-Hop was important to the project. It created a feel for it. We brought in Swiss Beat, 21 savage, ASAP Ferg (who is from Harlem), Rick Ross and DMX on to the project. They wrote to the episodes and created two new releases for the show. I believe that the songs are reflections of the show. I also believe that it conveys an important message about how people can evolve and how we all have different sides to us. You only hear about Bumpy as a gangster, but he also wanted to be a lawyer and when those avenues closed for him, he learned how to do the numbers… then he learned how to be a leader.
Johnson learned to be a leader… and a giver. As the head of his crime family (or his gang), he never once forgot his responsibility to his neighbors. Whitaker’s Johnson differs from Laurence Fishburne’s portrayal in the 1984 Cotton Club or in his 1997 Hoodlum or Clarence Williams III in the 2007 American Gangster. This man is seasoned and in the twilight of his life, conscientious of his legacy and what people will think about him. It is admirable. As we look at the gangsters that seems to mob Hip-Hop today, you see that as a culture there is a void in this type of integrity in street life. Whitaker’s Johnson is smart and calculated, but still compassionate and desirous of a better tomorrow. Gangsters like Tekashi 6ix9ine is neither. His ploy was to play gangster and pimp a reality that true gangsters wish that they did not have to embrace. Again, Johnson wanted to be a lawyer. The streets was an “in” to the American dream that he was excluded to back in the 40s and 50s.
Using this street culture, he learned to work with and respect others like the Italian mob. These kids war even within themselves, seldom finding peace and truce based on a mutual goal. Perhaps, Bumpy could be best seen in some of the work that Nipsey Hussle was doing? Who knows… but what is known in that there is thin line between the dark and the light and back in the day for Black people (preachers, teachers, civil rights activists and street kinds), those lines get blurry.