‘Godfather of Harlem’ star Ilfenesh Hadera explains why we root for mob heroes

Godfather of Harlem star ilfenesh Hadera
Ilfenesh Hadera discusses “Godfather of Harlem” at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, (Photo Credit: Bernard Fairclough / AB Services LLC)

In the upcoming EPIX series “Godfather of Harlem” Ifenesh Hadera stars as Bumpy Johnson’s wife Mayme Johnson.

When Bumpy makes his return to the city after a 10-year stint in prison, Mayme remains firmly at his side despite being equally drawn to and fearful of his dealings. After Johnson is forced into war with the Genovese family to regain what he lost, it’s Mayme that steadfastly supports him while their Harlem world shifts and turns.

Ahead of the series premiere, Hadera spoke with rolling out about Mayme’s life with Bumpy, the legacy of Harlem and why this series isn’t meant to cause a further divide.

Mob stories have a long history of dominating American television and film. What makes these stories so compelling?

I think we root for the underdog. These are not guys born with a silver spoon in their mouths. They’re self-made in a non-traditional way. They’re not straight-laced, but you have to have a bit of respect for a person who hasn’t had the best in life.

We see that especially with a man like Bumpy who really did have aspirations of being a lawyer. He also fancied himself a businessman. Had he been born in 2019, he may have become a lawyer or a professional. But at the turn of the century, he wasn’t afforded the same opportunities. We want to see those people victorious. Plus, there’s real glamour [in] danger.

Mayme walks such a fine line between elegance and strength as she supports a Bumpy Johnson as his wife. Is that a fair assessment?

You nailed it. Despite having been dealt a tough hand, she navigates with real composure and grace. I think it’s important to note that she’s drawn to things, but she’s not tough and that’s the difference.

Harlem is the nucleus for the series.  As a Harlem native, what was the experience like for you?

Harlem is really a very special [and] unique place with its soul, character, and history. There is great pride attached to being part of this project. I am such a proud supporter of my neighborhood and I feel really lucky to be part of it.

Godfather of Harlem” relives key moments in Johnson’s history that inner-city communities still feel the effects of. As a result, many watching will be deeply affected by the episodes. How do the stories help or hurt our current climate?

This series is not a reminder of the difficulties of the 1960s. It’s not meant to inflame or incite. I think there’s been enough of that in our current environment. It should be looked at as a cautionary [tale], we could go back to if we don’t remember the importance of community and humanity. Hopefully, you look back at how ugly things were and try to move forward and away from that.

“Godfather of Harlem” starring Forest Whitaker and Vincent D’Onofrio premieres Sept. 29 on Epix.

Jeandra LeBeauf

Jeandra LeBeauf is an Inglewood-based Sports & Entertainment reporter & Producer.

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