Synopsis: Godfather Of Harlem tells the true story of infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson (Whitaker), who in the early 1960s returned from ten years in prison to find the neighborhood he once ruled in shambles. With the streets controlled by the Italian mob, Bumpy must take on the Genovese crime family to regain control. During the brutal battle, he forms an alliance with radical preacher Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) – catching Malcolm’s political rise in the crosshairs of social upheaval and a mob war that threatens to tear the city apart. Godfather Of Harlem is a collision of the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.
Review: There are so many shows on TV these days that I understand how many of you may not even realize what is airing anymore. With the volume of TV I consume just from a critical perspective, there are many more series I watch for pure enjoyment and that still leaves many that I have yet to dive into at all. Every now and then, I review a series that I had absolutely no stake in prior to getting screeners that ends up being far more impressive than anticipated. Epix's new period crime drama Godfather of Harlem is one of those shows and definitely will appeal to fans of fllms like GOODFELLAS and AMERICAN GANGSTER. Plus, airing on Epix means there are no boundaries on profanity, nudity or violence which means this is an uncensored take on a very dark period in American history.
Set during the 1960s, Godfather of Harlem tells a fictionalized story of Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker), a real historical figure who factored into the films AMERICAN GANGSTER, SHAFT, ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ, and many more. Here, we see how his release from Alcatraz set into motion a showdown with the Mafia in New York, specifically with Vincent "Chin" Gigante (Vincent D'Onofrio). With the Civil Rights Movement in full swing, we see a drug war erupt on the streets of Harlem with Bumpy going toe to toe with mobsters as well as with the tactics of his friend and former cellmate Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch). Over the course of the first season of the show, we see Bumpy's return to the top of the criminal underworld while political upheaval surrounds them. It makes for a very intriguing story that is immensely interesting.
Forest Whitaker is one of the best actors working today but has never played a character quite like Bumpy Johnson. Equal parts tough guy and family man, his raspy New York accent is at once soft and gentle and terrifyingly confident. A product of his times, Whitaker plays Bumpy like a cross between a kingpin and a businessman. Vincent D'Onofrio, who actually did play Kingpin on Netflix's Daredevil, is a more stereotypical Italian mafioso and takes a cue from Viggo Mortensen's similar performance in GREEN BOOK. D'Onofrio is not bad, but his cliche dialogue sometimes makes it hard to take him seriously. And this series deserves a serious look despite some of the very familiar plot points.
The supporting cast here really shines with Giancarlo Esposito as Congressman and pastor Adam Clayton Powell Jr and Ilfenes Hadera as Bumpy's wife Mayme. Paul Sorvino has a nice supporting role as Mafia legend Frank Costello and Lucy Fry adds some subplot as Chin's daughter Stella whose involvement with an African-American musician brings Bumpy and Chin into a collission course. But the highlight of this cast is Nigel Thatch. Reprising the role of Malcolm X, which he also played in Ava DuVernay's SELMA, Thatch's take on the Nation of Islam leader rivals that of Denzel Washington's. Playing him with a calmer demeanor that can explode with confidence at any moment, Thatch's Malcolm X is the opposite of Bumpy's fire and brimstone demeanor and gives this series a very unique perspective on what it meant to be on the wrong side of the law for African-Americans in the 1960s.
Developed by Chris Brancato (Narcos) and Paul Eckstein, Godfather of Harlem is directed by John Ridley, the Academy Award winning screenwriter of 12 YEARS A SLAVE. Ridley evokes the way Harlem would have looked and felt sixty years ago as a drug epidemic swept through the Black community just as racial tensions were reaching a tipping point. While this story certainly has elements from crime series like The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire (as well as many familiar faces from both series), the combination of socially relevant plot elements help make the crime narrative feel different than anything else on TV. It also helps that the soundtrack is a mix of soul and rock music directly pulled from the era along with contemporary hip-hop that helps the series feel both modern and retro simultaneously.
With few shows airing today that follow in the footsteps of The Sopranos, Godfather of Harlem is a nice replacement. While the pacing may not be as frenetic as you would expect from a gangster drama, this is a character based tale that feels like a massive biopic of Bumpy Johnson as well as a glimpse into a period of history that was a powderkeg waiting to explode. Seeing the mix of historical and fictional characters reminded me quite a bit of Boardwalk Empire and, like that HBO series, this show has some brutal moments of violence that are not for the weak of heart or stomach. Overall, Godfather of Harlem is a nice show that may work better as a binge watch than a serial consumed over several months. But, one thing is for sure is that this show will definitely find an audience.
Godfather of Harlem premieres September 29th on Epix.