ABOVE PHOTO: Mayme Johnson (Ilfenesh Hadera) and Elise Johnson (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) in a scene from “Godfather of Harlem.” Photo Credit: David Giesbrecht/MGM Plus
By Kharisma McIlwaine
The drama series “Godfather of Harlem” tells the story of legendary gangster and drug dealer Bumpy Johnson, played brilliantly by Forest Whitaker. It follows Johnson’s reign over Harlem NYC during the 1960s at the height of the civil rights era after a 10-year prison sentence.
Johnson’s ideology and code of honor, in an ever-changing world, often resulted in the people closest to him making sacrifices. The women in Johnson’s life, his wife Mayme, played by Ilfenesh Hadera, and his eldest daughter Elise, played by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, are in a dynamic battle throughout season 3.
Hadera and Crowe-Legacy spoke with the SUN about the shift in their character’s relationship with Bumpy and each other, and what audiences can look forward to.
This season, Mayme and Elise’s relationship blossoms, where in the previous seasons, audiences saw them struggle for leverage in Johnson’s life. Currently, the two women have reached an understanding and found common ground.
“It’s one of my favorite relationships that I’ve seen develop throughout the series, because they’re coming from a very similar place, and I think in the beginning, it’s hard to see that,” Crowe-Legacy said. “Between them, there’s a lot of things pitting them against each other, but as we come to see throughout the seasons, those are the things that are actually binding them together.”
“They’re both trying to be good mothers to this beautiful child,” Crowe-Legacy continued. “They’re both trying to deal with their complicated relationship to this anti-hero, who is — while simultaneously being a very helpful, great human — also doing horrible, awful things. In our own personal relationship with him, it’s sort of in a tug of war constantly of loving Bumpy, but also hating a lot of the things that he does. So, we start to see how much they have in common, and I think they do, too. The more that they open up to each other, share with each other, and come back to each other, you start to see a really beautiful relationship building.”
“There was a point in season one where it felt like they’re such different women — in what world would these two be friends?” Hadera said. “It’s really nice to have moved away from that because, you see, as soon as they open their mouths and get real with one another where they, their hearts and their desires, aspirations, hopes, and dreams, both motherhood related and professionally — you see how similar they really are. Then it’s like, of course, these two women would be in each other’s lives. They have everything to gain from one another. It’s really beautiful to see them coach each other through many things this season.”
Mayme and Elise join forces in their ongoing battle with Johnson to reclaim their autonomy. For the first time in the series, we see them fight for their dreams, despite Johnson’s opposition to them.
“I think part of that is us being able to stand together as women,” Hadera said. “It’s not just the two of us individually fighting for ourselves. It’s the strength that having a sisterhood brings, which is awesome but maybe not so great for him. It’s like all of a sudden there’s not just one woman sheepishly saying, ‘No, I don’t want to do that.’ It’s two powerful, smart, savvy women who know what they want, saying, ‘No, we’re not going to do this.’”
“I think for Elise, there’s a thing that I think anyone who has a complicated relationship with a parent can understand,” Crowe-Legacy added. “There’s this sort of cyclical thing of starting to really understand Bumpy and to love him and to really want to relate to him and be there. Then he does something, and you’re like, I don’t understand why you’re doing this again. Then you fall back in, and you’re angry. I think what you’re starting to see is an acceptance of certain things, which is real growth for Elise. You start to see her understand that this sort of cycle will always exist and that she can’t control her life. There will always be danger. Being in the presence of these great men — being around Bumpy and Malcolm — there’s always going to be a danger, but you can’t let their fear, or your fear of that danger, keep you from moving forward. In this season, you really start to see the passion of these women.”
Tensions rise as the ladies refuse to stand by while Bumpy makes decisions about their lives without their consent.
“I love some conflict on a television show, and there’s no shortage of that,” Hadera said. “In season one, there was a bit of conflict between Bumpy and I. [By] season two, we were pretty even keeled. [In] season three, we come in pretty hot, pretty early on. I think that’s interesting. It’s captivating, and I think it’s real. You know you cannot have two fiery, strong-minded, bullheaded people like Mayme and Bumpy and not have a bit of, you know, explosive conflict. To be able to get into that and take the gloves off of Mayme was really fun to get to lean into. It’s nice to see her get a little angry this season and fight.”
“You really get to see how far she’s willing to go to fight for the things that she loves. I think that, in many ways, it’s really true how similar she is to Bumpy,” Crowe-Legacy said. “She is willing to stand up, she’s willing to fight, and she is stubborn. She’s not going to take no for an answer. She’s going to figure out how to make it work to the best of our ability, and she’s going to push until she can’t anymore. I think in many ways that is the greatest asset to the people around her is that she is willing to go very far. She is grown, she found that spirituality, she’s done all the things, but she is still streets. She’s still willing to go where necessary. If you’re putting us next to these men, who are willing to do anything, and you think these women aren’t built out of the same stuff, then you are wrong. They are the same — that’s why they relate. That’s why they can be there, that’s why they can hold their own, and that’s why they survived for so long. You really get to see how far we have to get pushed, and I think that’s really fun because we’re not afraid. We’re just as determined, if not more so, because we understand the stakes. We understand that the whole family has to be protected, not just one entity.”
The development and complexities of the characters in “Godfather of Harlem” are on full display in season 3. The women shared their hopes for what audiences will take away from this season.
“There’s just such an endless amount of storytelling to be had and created with a series like this,” Hadera said. “Each one of the storylines could stand alone as their own. “The Italian mafia, Adam Clayton Powell, and Bumpy as this legend in Harlem are all focal points — Harlem itself could be a show. We have the Cuban mafia this season, the CIA, talks of Fidel — there’s an endless number of ways this could be captivating TV, and they’ve all found each other. I hope they’re all as excited as we are to go on this journey.”
To keep up with the women of “Godfather of Harlem” be sure to follow Ilfenesh Hadera and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy on IG @ilfenator and @____antoinette_____ respectively. New episodes of “Godfather of Harlem” are available every Sunday on MGM Plus and Hulu.
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