In Cape Town, the 58-year-old Whitaker and the city’s mayor, Dan Plato, planted a ceremonial tree in the Cape Flats neighbourhood to mark the WPDI’s progress. The idea of being rooted to a community, instead of merely profiting from it, is central to Godfather of Harlem. When Bumpy considers the burgeoning heroin trade, he sees both a lucrative source of income and a scourge destroying the lives of people he’s connected to.
“Once you get a sense of his inner workings, you start to understand his decisions more,” Whitaker says. “There are all these conflicts in his life, but normally you don’t get to understand the political life of a mobster. He has a friendship with Malcolm X, for example, and that’s what makes the show unique.”
Godfather of Harlem is studded with other historic figures that Bumpy either clashes with, coerces or converts. As well as Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), then a firebrand preacher with the militant Nation of Islam, there’s Mafia boss Vincent Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio), pastor and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr (Giancarlo Esposito), and even boxing prodigy Muhammad Ali (Deric Augustine).
“We chose 1963 as our starting point because it was a crucial moment in the Civil Rights movement and it gives you framing for what’s going on inside the show,” Whitaker says. “We knew that we were going to be dealing with those characters, with the March on Washington, the assassination of President Kennedy. All of this happens in ’63 and it let us shape the story around individual lives.”
It was the period’s scope that got Whitaker excited by the idea of Godfather of Harlem when it was initially presented to him as a concept. He recruited showrunners Chris Brancato (Netflix’s Narcos) and Paul Eckstein, and then helped successfully pitch the package to the American cable network Epix (Berlin Station, Pennyworth). Whitaker sat with writers and worked on budgets, helping put a different side of American history onto the screen.
“It was a huge time of change for the country, but at the same time it lets us look at what’s happening today,” Whitaker says. “We’re still querying some of the issues we struggled with back in the 1960s, they still impact our lives today.”
While the Texan native has worked regularly on television, including seasons on The Shield and Empire, his most prominent roles have been in movies. His CV is daunting: The Crying Game, Panic Room, The Last King of Scotland (which earned him the Best Actor Oscar in 2006), The Butler, Arrival and Black Panther. Whitaker has been so prominent for so long that sometimes we take his best performances for granted.
For now, he’s committed to Godfather of Harlem. “The work is hard,” Whitaker says, referring to simultaneously producing and starring, but the pay-off has been a first season that he believes got better with every episode and is set up for a second one. Whitaker and his fellow producers are now waiting on the green light after informal talks.
“It’s close, but we’re not confirmed. I wish I could tell you more,” Whitaker says, and for a few moments he has the same persuasive rhythm as Bumpy Johnson. It really is his role.