‘Godfather of Harlem’ Brings Some Fresh Elements to the Gangster Genre 

Epix’s “Godfather of Harlem” promises an hour of good old gangland intrigue, complete with men in sharp suits settling vendettas with bullets. On that score it completely delivers, giving viewers a stylish, at times overdramatic imagining of the latter days of famous Harlem kingpin Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker). On one level it’s a good entertainment, featuring a stellar cast and fantastic production values, on another level it uses the melodrama of this genre to explore themes about race in a way you normally wouldn’t get in a mere crime thriller.

It’s 1963 and Johnson has been released from Alcatraz prison. Once an infamous crime lord, wielding great power and influence, Johnson returns to a changing Harlem. A heroin epidemic is gripping the local black community and has become the market of choice for local mobsters. Bumpy still has money, a beautiful wife named Mayme (Ilfenesh Hadera) and influence. But some other things have changed, like Bumpy’s old friend Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch), who long ago abandoned hustling to become a leading preacher in the Nation of Islam. Yet some old vendettas do remain the same, like Bumpy’s bad blood with Italian gangster Vincent “The Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio), who is not only flooding the streets with heroin but refuses to give Bumpy a cut. But Bumpy is soon approached with propositions that differ from his usual activities. Malcolm proposes Bumpy help the Nation of Islam eradicate heroin dealers, so while “Fruit of Islam” soldiers begin cleaning out the area, Bumpy provides cover. Other figures like a local preacher turned congressman, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito), approach Bumpy for political clout. 

The gangster genre is the classic terrain of conflicted heroes. Bumpy Johnson is both underworld strongman and possible moral agent in this show. As played by Forest Whitaker he wants his cut of the action but feels the pang of a guilty conscience when Malcolm X gives him a tour of drug-infested slums. This is an older, different Bumpy Johnson from the one played by Laurence Fishburne in 1997’s “Hoodlum,” where the theme was also crime as a response to poverty during the Great Depression. That movie was written by this show’s creator, Chris Brancato, who likes to dabble in criminal themes since he’s also a co-creator of Netflix’s “Narcos.”  He is joined here on showrunning duties by his usual producing partner Paul Eckstein. The pilot for “Godfather of Harlem” is directed by John Ridley, Oscar-winning writer of “12 Years a Slave.” These are filmmakers who have been adapting history into drama for years now. “Godfather of Harlem” has a roster full of notable, real-life personalities. Bumpy is protected from Gigante by famous don Frank Costello (Paul Sorvino) and Adam Clayton Powell was indeed a real person as well. 

But don’t expect “Godfather of Harlem” to be some kind of overly academic study of Bumpy Johnson. This is a show designed to be entertaining on an almost melodramatic level. When Malcolm asks Johnson for help it’s followed by montages set to rap music, as Fruit of Islam militants throw heroin packets into flaming trash bins, beat down dealers and get into a Mexican standoff with Gigante and his crew. Nigel Thatch, who played Malcolm X originally in the movie “Selma,” is always with his jaw firmly clenched, waiting to deliver lines never less than epic (“I have soldiers”). Gigante is in despair because his pure Italian American daughter Stella (Lucy Fry) is having a hot affair with a local black gangster, Teddy (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). While discussing the matter in a confessional, Gigante quite seriously compares his daughter’s situation to Bathsheba seducing King David in the Bible. No wonder there’s a clear disclaimer at the beginning of the show, warning us that while based on true events, the show has to fib a little for the sake of drama. The question is always, of course, if it’s done well. The whole Stella and Teddy storyline, including Bumpy’s dealings with the Italians, give space for issues of race in 60s Harlem. There are certain areas where even Bumpy can’t cross into without raising eyebrows because he’s black, and the Italians use racial slurs casually. The irony is both groups are in the same illegal business. This gives the show a more refreshing angle when it comes to mafia on television. 

Much of the rest of the debut for “Godfather of Harlem” stylishly delivers what we come to expect. Whitaker walks around in good suits, banters with Malcolm and is hesitant to discuss prison life with his wife. Gigante sends one of his goons to kill Bumpy, when it fails Bumpy tracks the shooter down and finds him giving cunnilingus to a woman in a hotel room before slicing him up with a straight razor. Bumpy the community leader can easily become Bumpy the fierce gangster. Later he helps a local drug addict who he meets on the street get help through the Nation of Islam. Whitaker plays it with an intelligent smoothness, evoking power even during the show’s more over the top moments.

“Godfather of Harlem” is all about its slickness and meaning as a genre series with an African American historical character as the focus. It’s a well-made entertainment, using old vintages in new bottles. 

Godfather of Harlem” premieres Sept. 29 and airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on EPIX.