‘Godfather of Harlem’ Claims New Territory in Season 2

Godfather of Harlem” season two is being tied with the “French Connection.” It is the title of this season’s first episode, a new business venture for Forest Whitaker’s Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, and a real piece of mob history. Most of the action concerns distribution control over the heroin pipeline which runs from Corsica to Marseille to New York. Bumpy wants to cut out the middleman and deal directly with mainline supplier Jean Jehan (Ronald Guttman), who Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) calls one of the “frogs from the Corsican countryside.” “The French Connection” is also the name of a classic 1971 film starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider, and the season’s opening sequence nods respect with an old school car chase.

The first season ended with Johnson on the run from the Five Families.  Season 2 picks up in February 1964. He’s been ducking hitmen for three months, and is starting to bug out. The only thing keeping him sane is knowing his wife Mayme (Ilfenesh Hadera) and granddaughter are being kept safe with family in South Carolina until the whole thing blows over. Bumpy’s daughter Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), is the only family member the Harlem kingpin keeps close. Elise had the most dramatic arc during the first season, kicking the very product her father peddles with the help of the Nation of Islam. She is now pulling double duty as a secretary in the church and helping her father while he is on the lam within a 45-block radius.

This is no mean feat, and makes life especially difficult for Gigante, who controls Harlem for the Genovese family. Bumpy and Chin may threaten each other with guns, but their most beastly battles are fought with words. Bumpy and Chin may look like the most bitter of enemies, but Whitaker and D’Onofrio play the scenes like they’re playing a nasty game of handball. Chin’s ex-boxer training urges him to punch that Spalding, while Bumpy kills the corners.

Whitaker plays down his emotions, and keeps his motivations as close to his vest as Bumpy keeps his plans. The gangster he is based on was described as cold and unemotional while he was alive. Whitaker exudes humanity from his very pore. He is playing a criminal on the outside, but it is always infused by inner racial pride and guilt. Any hint of his legendary reptilian coldness drops when Johnson speaks French, or relishes a chess match win.

The real-life Bumpy Johnson made his bones when Harlem was the center of a turf war with Jewish mob boss Dutch Schultz from the Bronx in the 1920s and 1930s. He partnered with Harlem’s crime queen Stephanie St. Clair and her gang the 40 Thieves. Mob legend Lucky Luciano himself gave the order to get Schultz out of the way and declare Bumpy a family associate. The head of the Five Families played chess regularly with Bumpy in front of the YMCA on 135th Street for years. Paul Sorvino’s Frank Costello keeps up the game in the series. Whitaker internalizes the history into Machiavellian method acting. Johnson calls every play in his heroin distribution maneuver a chess move.

Annabella Sciorra joins this season as Fay Bonanno, the wife of mob boss Joe Bonanno (Chazz Palminteri). She makes for a very different kind of wife than was portrayed in “Honor Thy Father,” Gay Talese’s book on the mafia father. Fay appears to be very involved in her husband’s business. She also openly appreciates Bumpy’s more cultured side, bonding over opera in their very short introduction scene. Bonanno won’t allow himself to look past the institutional racism of his most secret organization.

D’Onofrio’s Gigante is an unapologetic bigot, and the Brooklyn-born actor infuses every hateful epithet with the power of his neighborhood’s atonement. The actor was more than embarrassed growing up around the more-than-casual racism which all-too-often exploded into violent incidents, and he lets the anger implode. Surprisingly, given such a small range of motives in the series, D’Onofrio still finds eccentric nuances even as he throws off emotional constraints. Gigante’s daughter Stella (Lucy Fry) is traumatized over last season’s execution of her boyfriend, the songwriting guitarist Teddy Greene (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). She is under suicide watch, but no one in the family can even look at her. This is where the racial confrontations make the most impact on the white side of the street. Stella has to come to grips with her part in things, and Greene’s family proves to supply the most human education.

The second season continues to explore Bumpy’s problematic relationship with Harlem as a community. No matter how close Johnson is to Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito) or Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch), he’s still pushing dope. Dooji, which is what heroin is called, is a commodity to Bumpy, and misery for Malcolm X. The most interesting aspect of the series is how Johnson’s heroin business grows in a parallel to the forward march of the local and national rights movement. Thatch, who also played Malcolm X in “Selma,” is the model of cool as he navigates the very treacherous waters of defending Elijah Muhammad, while still keeping an eye on his public profile.

Bumpy follows Malcolm X’s message of black economic nationalism to form the blueprint of a heroin distribution syndicate which will benefit all the major black crime bosses across the country. Method Man plays Sam Christian, the head of the Philadelphia Black Mafia. The street battle is really an allegory for the national civil rights battle. Bumpy is fighting it on the street, while the political preachers spar on the pulpits of church and TV.

Johnson was Harlem’s crime boss for more than 30 years. In his heyday, Johnson hung with sports heroes like Sugar Ray Robinson, and celebrities like Billie Holiday. He had affairs with Lena Horne, and “Vanity Fair” editor Helen Lawrenson. His poetry was published proudly during the Harlem Renaissance.  In the series, he socializes with Cassius Clay (Deric Augustine), who also plays a pivotal role in Malcolm’s trajectory.

The series doesn’t overuse clichéd pop-culture references to establish the timeframe. Cars, clothes and furniture do most of the work. Executive music producer Swizz Beat mixes a modern soundtrack to recognizable period hits, but the loudest cultural noise comes from the sports world. The second episode, “Sting Like a Bee,” highlights Clay’s fight with Sonny Liston and accurately depicts the mixed reaction to the Heavyweight preliminaries. It’s surprising to see how many people bet on Liston. The series doesn’t even bother to mention Clay’s photo op with The Beatles. 

The heroin hijacking scene is well-staged and probably the best of the action sequences. It builds from the POV of the sniper who is keeping watch over the operation, and expands to the entire dock as the cars are unloaded before the gang is in place. It is cross cut with shots of Bumpy, giving him an alibi and plausible deniability. He can say he was shaving off his beard at the time. The man who saved Harlem Numbers Rackets shaves more than points with the feds, though.

As he did in the first season, Bumpy again balks at ratting out the Italian. “I’m not a snitch,” he tells Robert Morgenthau (Justin Bartha). Johnson did eight years in Alcatraz rather than bring down the Five Families, and they’ve appreciated it.  Morgenthau, the incorruptible U.S. District Attorney for the Southern District of New York, will corrupt anyone to make a name for himself as the man who took down Italian gangsters. He’s got a vendetta against the Mediterranean mob. Everyone has one, including the writers. The Italian gangsters have less dimension. They’re not even the mercenary capitalists normally portrayed in gangland turf wars. They are the scapegoats for the nation’s racism. Easily identifiable, they also bore the white man’s burden in “Fargo.” Organized criminals played by different rules and was integrated long before any sports league, golf club or local civic center. 

Created and written by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, the series sticks close to historical and political events to move as a socially motivated series, but flubs the gangster saga. “Godfather of Harlem” presents the usual mob clichés, keeping it well below the level of “The Sopranos.” And it never comes close to the historical accuracy of the gangsters on “Boardwalk Empire.” As entertaining a gangster series as it is, it works better as a civil rights parable. 

Godfather of Harlem” season 2 premieres April 18 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on Epix.