For years, Bumpy Johnson ruled the drug trade in Harlem, but he never became a legendary name like John Gotti or Al Capone. Although Bumpy has never had a movie biopic of his own, his character has been featured in several big motion picture films. His death in Frank Lucas’ arms was even portrayed in the hit film American Gangster.
Finally, his life will be detailed in The Godfather of Harlem, premiering September 29th on EPIX. The story picks up in the early 1960’s, after he Is just released from a 10 year stint in prison. Played by Forest Whitaker, Bumpy returns to find his firm grip on Harlem has loosened with the influence of the Italian mob.
He was born Ellsworth Raymond Johnson in Charleston, South Carolina, but was nicknamed Bumpy due to a deformation on the back of his head. At 10 years old, his mother moved he and several siblings to Harlem after his brother was accused of killing a white man. Upon moving to Harlem, he was teased for his appearance, for being new, and for being a southern boy in New York. He made a name for himself as a fighter who wouldn’t tolerate disrespect.
When Bumpy eventually dropped out of school his life of crime took off, particularly as a bodyguard for criminals. Eventually Bumpy guarded the powerful Stephanie St. Clair, a gangster queen ruling multiple organizations in Harlem. St. Clair engaged in a violent war for power with the Italian Mob, causing Bumpy to upgrade his duties to robbery and even murder to help her win. The end of the war came with unprecedented power and peace. The Italian mob could operate their bookkeepers in Harlem as long as Bumpy and St. Clair skimmed some of the profits. St. Clair eventually left the crime life after spending time in prison for shooting her husband. Bumpy stayed in the game to take the throne. Unfortunately, just a little while after, he was suddenly sentenced to 10 years in prison at Alcatraz.
The Italian Mob had taken control of much of Bumpy’s territory while he was in prison. To get it back, Bumpy would need more than his street skills. Malcolm X had long been a friend of Bumpy, and was willing to come to bat to get Harlem back in order. Although the two men were very different people, their individual influence made them powerful contenders when together. Malcolm X represented the Nation of Islam, a group with thousands of young and active members. Malcolm X didn’t believe power was gained through being passive.
He encouraged all his members to power past white aggression “by any means necessary.” Bumpy, on the other hand, was known as a sort of Robin Hood in Harlem. He became a man for the people, a surefire way to keep even regular people in Harlem loyal to him. He gave away turkeys to those in need for Thanksgiving. He was fashionable and wrote poetry. He encouraged youth not to fall into a life of crime, despite his own dealings. With Bumpy having adoration of those in his crime organization and people throughout the city, he was more prepared than ever to snatch power back.