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Forest Whitaker recently helped premiere the pilot episode for the upcoming Epix drama “Godfather of Harlem” to the world at the third annual Tribeca TV Festival in New York City. The period drama is set in Harlem, New York in the early 1960s, 11 years after the infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson (played by Forest Whitaker) was released from prison. He returns to his former concrete kingdom with heroin wreaking havoc and Italian mobster Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio).
It has Golden Globes potential, and it may not have ever existed today without hip hop.
The episode is brimming with hip hop music from the first shotgun blast into a cow’s carcass containing a kilo of heroin and the music never felt anachronistic. When Bumpy and his crew left their car to retrieve guns from the trunk, you can hear Buddy sinisterly rap, “I am the driver and the shooter” from Wale and A$AP Ferg’s song “Hallelujah.” Just as Bumpy shakes hands with Malcolm X — played impeccably by Nigel Thatch — to cement a union to combat the Italian mob, Dave East can be heard snarling “business is business.” The show makes it abundantly clear that hip hop will be fused in its DNA — but its influence goes even deeper.
Even more interesting to note is that before a single scene was filmed, Whitaker and executive producers Paul Eckstein and Chris Brancato initially pitched the idea of the series to three networks. The original pitch entailed an African-American gangster. Nonetheless, the networks passed. The shine of Whitaker’s Oscar gold history got lost in the shadow of his skin. “It’s [tough] to sell, in Hollywood, a period piece that has an African-American centerpiece,” Brancato proclaimed during the panel discussion, which followed the screening.
That was until Michael Wright was appointed as president of Epix in November 2017. During a meeting with the new president, Whitaker conveyed the importance of how the mixture of 1960s music and today’s hip hop music in the show would “establish contemporary parallels,” said Brancato. The famed actor pointed to the spoken word intro of The Chi-Lites’ 1963 classic “Have You Seen Her.” It suggested that it would be a logical precursor to the sound of hip hop, the genre that would be born in the following decade.
“At that moment, Michael Wright and Forest [Whitaker] started bursting out into singing ‘Have You Seen Her,’” Brancato remembered. “Before the meeting was over, Michael said, ‘I don’t want to be coy. Let’s go make 10 [episodes].”
It wasn’t hard to get hip hop artists interested in helping to shape the sound of the show. “Everybody knows who Bumpy is in the hip hop community, so a lot of people were interested. Nas and [others],” Eckstein told REVOLT on the red carpet. “Swizz is from Harlem (editor’s note: Swizz is actually from the Bronx, New York). He ‘s the real deal. He understood what we were trying to achieve here, narratively, in terms of having a show that isn’t just about being a gangster.’”
Once Swizz was on board as the music director — the legendary hip hop producer with a sound that reverberates throughout the annals of hip hop history — understood how to marry the two eras. So far, only the theme song, “Just In Case” featuring Rick Ross and DMX, and the “Hallelujah” tracks have been released and have already set the tone for the show.
“[Swizz] immediately said, ‘I’m going to put that in the music -- that depth, that history, those ideas that you’re building on. I’m going to get my boys to [make] that music,’” Eckstein told REVOLT. “He saw what we shot and said, ‘OK, I’m going to make some music about that scene, about that moment, about that transition. Then, I’m going to get Rick Ross.’”
Whitaker’s depiction of Bumpy Johnson is an embodiment of the constant warring of conflicting ideals. The actor portrays the conflicted criminal with the cerebral grace of a man who exists between instinct and impulse. This was a type of man who reflexively has shootouts in broad daylight — and returned from one in this particular episode — to ebulliently share an ice cream sundae with his daughter and wife, who watched the whole ordeal.
The next nine episodes have enough to explore from the first. All in all, it’s enough for a full gritty season. The wounds of being locked in a cage for 11 years open up, and you will be a standout scene between Bumpy and his wife, Mayme. The part of Mayme was played with indomitable grace by Ilfenesh Hadera. Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam’s complicated relationship with the drug epidemic was briefly explored, as well. However, it stirred a debate about racial assimilation in the drug business.
Jazmine Sullivan makes an appearance at a speakeasy singing “Something’s Got A Hold On Me” like she was possessed by the spirit of the late Etta James, while showing off her formidable dramatic acting.
When “Godfather of Harlem” debuts on Epix on September 29, hip hop will finally have a weekly gangster flick to call our own. Peep the trailer below: