The real and complex story of Bumpy Johnson
By Paul Lee
Special to the Michigan Citizen
With the much-anticipated release of American Gangster, the major motion picture starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington as little-known Harlem heroin kingpin Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe as the gumshoe and later prosecutor who brought him down, white-run Hollywood is again displaying its fascination with the subgenre of gritty, mostly fantastical black gangsta films.
Four of these films, including American Gangster, feature highly fictionalized portrayals of Ellsworth Raymond (Bumpy) Johnson, the man Lucas claims as his mentor (which is disputed by the latter’s 93-year-old widow). For decades Johnson was the legendary and fearsome head of Harlem’s black underworld. He was felled by a heart attack in a local restaurant at the age of 62 on July 9, 1968.
Gordon Parks’ 1970 film, Shaft, which some historians credit with sparking the “Blaxploitation” movies that were long on style and attitude — offering unprecedented opportunities for black screenwriters, directors and actors — but short on budgets and quality, marked the first appearance of a fictionalized Johnson.
Played by veteran actor Moses Gunn, the cartoonish, cigar-chomping character had little in common with the real mobster except for his profession and nickname.
The next two incarnations of a mostly make-believe Johnson were portrayed by the same actor in two different films.
A youngish Larry Fishburne played a thin, glowering “Bumpy Rhodes,” a character loosely based on Johnson, in Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish, but ill-starred 1984 Cotton Club.
Thirteen years later, an older, more seasoned and dapper Laurence Fishburne reprised the role, promoted as being the story of the real-life Johnson, in Bill Duke’s 1997 Hoodlum.
Although the latter was better researched than the former films, it only sampled a few of the more touchy-feely details of Johnson’s life (his love of reading, poetry and chess) to paint a romanticized portrait of Johnson as a black Robin Hood (pun intended).
In American Gangster, Johnson is portrayed by Clarence Williams III, who first gained fame in the 1960s television cop drama “The Mod Squad.” Williams played “Bud Hewlett,” Johnson’s fictional nemesis-turned ally in Hoodlum.
‘Staunch race man’
However, what all of these films missed was how Johnson’s contemporaries viewed him in the larger social context of the turbulent times in which he lived. Elements of this were hinted at in the obituary and funeral report in The New York Times.
According to Johnson’s July 10, 1968, obit, “Long before the development of the civil rights movement, a police official said, Johnson had the reputation of being a ‘staunch race man,’ and of ‘never giving in.’ It was this that earned him the nickname of Bumpy.
“‘He took the bumps of life,’ a relative said.” (Another account attributes the moniker to a bump on the back of Johnson’s head.)
Calvin H. Boxley, a New York police lieutenant, offered a veteran cop’s assessment of Johnson’s role in the Big Apple’s criminal world at the latter’s funeral the following day.
“He was the last of the Dutch Schultz-Owney Madden crowd,” Boxley told the Times reporter. Schultz, the former Arthur Flegenheimer, was the notorious German-Jewish bootlegger and numbers racketeer, and Owen (The Killer) Madden was an infamous enforcer, boxing promoter and owner of Harlem’s famous whites-only Cotton Club, which featured black acts.
“His [Johnson’s] death marked the end of an era. Bumpy was the link between Harlem — the West Side — and the [Italian] Mafia — the East Side. …
“Don’t make him an idol,” the lieutenant warned. “He was a hoodlum — a stone hoodlum.”
However, the Rev. John H. Johnson (no relation) of Harlem’s St. Martin’s Episcopal church eulogized him as a man who “decided he was not going to be anybody’s clown, anyone’s flunky.
“Above all,” he continued, “he despised phonies and hypocrites; in a world filled with social contamination and double-talk, maybe there was no other way to be a man.”
Funeral home director Rodney Dade said, “Had he been well-directed, in the sense that he had an opportunity to put to good use the talents he had, he would have succeeded in many fields.”
Underlining Johnson’s ironic view of himself as a community protector rather than exploiter, Dade added, “He would never allow the Caucasian majority to run roughshod over him or the community he lived in. He was a man that, strangely, I respected.”
An unnamed Harlem newsman asserted that Johnson was a “contact man for all sorts of illegal activity.”
“He handled the disciplinary action with the rackets families,” he continued. “When a man was rebelling in the black area against white control, ‘enforcement contracts’ went through Bumpy.” He added that Johnson was “vicious, unabashedly wicked.”
However, a colleague who often saw Johnson noted that the mobster donated money to civil-rights groups, although he himself was a “supreme cynic.”
Within this contradiction lies much of the complexity of the real Bumpy Johnson. As former Newsweek editor and Malcolm X biographer Peter Goldman commented after reading a draft of this article: “The gangster who polluted the ‘hood [with drugs] turns out to have been race-conscious in ways you’d never expect.”
Which is why this writer is ambivalent about Johnson. Many of our readers might be, as well, when the little-known story of the real Bumpy Johnson continues next week.
(Next week: “The protector”)