Forest Whitaker interview: ‘Godfather of Harlem’
“It’s a big pressure cooker,” reveals Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker about the much anticipated second season of the Epix crime drama “Godfather of Harlem,” which premiered April 18 on the premium cable network.
Season 2 opens with Whitaker’s drug kingpin emerging from three months in hiding after the shocking events of the first season finale when his rivals in the Italian mob put out a hit on him. Watch our exclusive video interview with Whitaker above as we explore what we can expect from Season 2.
In “Godfather of Harlem,” Whitaker plays real-life crime boss Bumpy Johnson, who last season returned from 10 years in prison to find his beloved Harlem neighborhood, which he once controlled, now run by the nefarious Italian mafia. In his efforts to reclaim the streets alongside old friend Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), Bumpy triggers a bloody feud with the powerful Genovese family.
The series was created by Chris Brancato (“Narcos”) and Paul Eckstein (“Law & Order: Criminal Intent”) and has been praised by critics as a compelling and dynamic exploration of political and social upheaval of the 1960s through the prism of organized crime, with its first season scoring an impressive 92% fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. It serves as a prequel to the Ridley Scott‘s award-winning film “American Gangster” (2007) and co-stars Vincent D’Onofrio, Paul Sorvino, Chazz Palminteri, Elvis Nolasco, Katherine Narducci, Ilfenesh Hadera and Giancarlo Esposito.
Season 2 sees Bumpy come out of hiding from ruthless gangster Vincent “Chin” Gigante (D’Onofrio) in an attempt to lift the sanctions off his head. He forges surprising new alliances and cleverly infiltrates the lucrative “French Connection” heroin pipeline from Marseilles to New York, all the while aiming to ultimately reunite safely with his beloved family in Harlem.
Whitaker agrees that one reason why the show has hit a nerve with audiences is because it is strangely aspirational. While these characters are violent, morally questionable thugs that you might be hard pressed to admire, they represent that part of us that subconsciously covets power and control. “These people live by a code. There’s an order that people want in life too. You live by a code, you know what to do, what’s going to happen, what the punishment in life is going to be. It’s those codes that are explored,” Whitaker says. “People aspire to feeling that certainty and strength about their life.”
Season 2 is set against the backdrop of the continuing civil unrest and violent gang warfare of 1964. Whitaker readily admits that he signed up to the show because of the themes it explores. “It was one of the reasons why we did this show in the first place,” he says. “It was one of the motivating factors, to stand up as a mirror or a prism to what is happening today. I don’t think we expected it to be such a clear mirror, that there would be uprisings in the streets and we would have to suffer through more young black boys being murdered and see brutality like [what happened to] George Floyd.”
The 1960s were so appealing because they so clearly represent history repeating itself. The show powerfully draws parallels between the 1960s and the social discourse across the US powered by the Black Lives Matter movement, systemic racism, voting rights and equal opportunity. “I wouldn’t have done it if it was set in the 1930s or the 1920s. I just wouldn’t have done it,” he admits.