Producer Nina Yang Bongiovi has made a name for herself fighting for first-time indie filmmakers telling stories about underrepresented people and communities. And though her new series “Godfather of Harlem” had Forest Whitaker attached to play well-known gangster Bumpy Johnson, she still fought an uphill battle to get the show made.
But Yang Bongiovi got a huge boost when Ryan Coogler — whose first feature “Fruitvale Station” she championed back in 2013 — scored a critical and commercial hit with 2018’s “Black Panther.” It proved she had a sharp eye for talent.
“When people were really on the fence about ‘Godfather of Harlem’ … last year about January … people were considering it and they weren’t sure. And then ‘Black Panther’ hit, and it reaffirmed what our worth is when it comes to a show like ‘Godfather,’ Yang Bongiovi said in an interview with TheWrap. “How crazy is it that we launched Ryan Coogler’s career? It comes full circle, and it came back to bless us so our TV show could get greenlit.”
“Godfather of Harlem,” which premieres on Epix on Sunday, stars Whitaker as the Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson after his release from Alcatraz in 1963 and how he fought his way back on top of the mob scene, even leading to the rise of the mobster Frank Lucas.
But with all that pedigree, Yang Bongiovi still found “Godfather” to be a tough sell. Yang Bongiovi is producing partners with Whitaker at their Significant Productions, and the two had been through this song and dance before when buyers devalued the worth and reach that movies like “Fruitvale Station,” “Dope” and “Sorry to Bother You” would have.
“Many buyers thought, ‘Well, it’s tough. Period piece, black show?’ Or, ‘We have our one black show.’ When you hear things like that, it inspires us to become activists,” Yang Bongiovi said. “And I feel like what I can do, now I have a seat at the table, I have a voice at the table, I’m allowed to speak my voice because now my credibility is there. I’m not just talking because I’m loud, I’m talking because I have real-life experience in knowing that inclusivity and diversity makes good business.”
“Godfather of Harlem” could’ve easily been a series of the greatest hits of Bumpy Johnson and his most notorious crimes from his heydays in the ’30s and ’40s. But Yang Bongiovi and creators Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein wanted to focus on Johnson after he got out of prison and was thrust back into a rapidly changing country and culture. They met with Johnson’s granddaughter Margaret Johnson, depicted in the show as a little girl, and were committed to taking his story “seriously.”
“His story really hasn’t been told properly,” Yang Bongiovi said. “In 1963, it was the rise of the Civil Rights movement. It was the intersectionality of crimes, politics and drugs. All that brought to the forefront really allowed us to explore different angles of storytelling.”
“Godfather of Harlem” is also the first TV show for Significant Productions. Yang Bongiovi said a movie wouldn’t have allowed the room for the show to breathe and flesh out Bumpy’s interactions with historical figures like Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. In fact, Yang Bongiovi says that the show’s creators have already mapped out five years of Bumpy Johnson’s life story should the show continue.
While Yang Bongiovi says African Americans remain the core audience for this story, like all their films, they’ve drilled down on how to reach broader sectors, even recruiting hip hop DJ Swizz Beatz as an executive music producer to place more contemporary music into the period piece and hopefully reach a younger crowd.
But of all the people Yang Bongiovi had to sell on the show, the toughest of all may have been her producing partner, Forest Whitaker.
“I just remember that moment, all of us were chasing him down. You gotta do this, you gotta do this. I don’t know how much pressure he got from 20-30 of us, but he had to do it. There was nobody else,” Yang Bongiovi said. “We all were quietly wishing that it was Forest. All of us in the core team wanted it to be so strong that Forest would say yes.”
“Godfather of Harlem” premieres Sept. 29 on Epix.