“Bumpy” Johnson was around when the Genovese crime family still had “Lucky” Luciano’s name on it. He got out of prison around the time Malcolm X preached common sense. The upcoming gangster series Godfather of Harlem will premiere on Epix on September 29, according to Deadline. Oscar-winning actor and director Forest Whitaker will star as Bumpy Johnson. Ilfenesh Hadera (She’s Gotta Have It), will play Mayme Hatcher Johnson, Bumpy’s wife. The trailer says Johnson will bring back his community “by any means necessary.”
Bumpy was a poet during his gangster hey day, who contributed to the culture of the Harlem Renaissance. Godfather of Harlem tells the “true story of infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson, who in the early 1960s returned from ten years in prison to find the neighborhood he once ruled in shambles,” reads the official synposis.
“With the streets controlled by the Italian mob, Bumpy must take on the Genovese crime family to regain control. During the brutal battle, he forms an alliance with radical preacher Malcolm X – catching Malcolm’s political rise in the crosshairs of social upheaval and a mob war that threatens to tear the city apart. Godfather of Harlem is a collision of the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.”
Ellsworth Raymond Johnson got the his nickname from a bump he had on his head. His older brother Willie was accused of killing a white man when Bumpy was ten. By the time he was 30, Johnson had spent almost half his life in prison. He spent three years of a ten year burglary sentence in solitary confinement.
When he got out of prison in 1932, Bumpy became an associate, and rumored lover, of Harlem mob boss Stephanie St. Clair, who ran the numbers racket. The battle for control over the street lottery with Arthur Flegenheimer, who took the legendary Bronx title of Dutch Shultz, had a 40 person body count. After Shultz’s demise Johnson ran Harlem under Mafia protection. The deal, brokered by Charles “Lucky” Luciano himself, lasted forty years. Johnson staged a sit-down strike at a police station in December 1965 after he was fed up with police surveillance. He was arrested and charged with “refusal to leave a police station.”
In the ten-episode series Bumpy goes up against Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, played by Vincent D’Onofrio. Nigel Thatch will bring a new take to Malcolm X, a role which got him nominated for an Oscar when he played him in Selma (2014). Paul Sorvino plays Frank Costello. Giancarlo Esposito also stars as Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
The series comes from Narcos co-creator Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein and ABC Signature Studios.
You can watch the trailer here:
Godfather of Harlem premieres on Epix beginning September 29.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.