Godfather of Harlem is brilliant! When it was announced earlier this year that Forest Whitaker would be starring in a new series for Epix about one of the greatest Black gangsters to have ever lived, many presumed it was going to be about Frank Lucas, who was portrayed by Denzel Washington in American Gangster. However, it turned out to be a portrayal of the infamous Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, who Laurence Fishburne played in the 1997 film Hoodlum. Unlike Hoodlum, which covers Johnson’s life in 1934 after he gets out of prison, takes over the numbers game from the Queen in charge and wages war in Harlem against the Italian mobster Dutch Schultz, Godfather of Harlem takes place in 1963 after Johnson’s 11-year sentence in Alcatraz on drug charges.
Once home, Johnson realizes that life in Harlem isn’t as he left it. The Italian mob led by Vincent “Chin” Gigante has moved into his home turf, racial tensions are higher than ever and his relationships with his wife and estranged daughter, from a previous relationship, are hanging by a thread.
From the first scene, Johnson’s internal struggle of financially supporting his community by the distribution of illegal drugs and knowing that those same drugs are killing people in his community is one display. This point is drilled even deeper when he finds his estranged daughter, who is living with drug addiction, sleeping on the streets of Harlem. He seeks the help of a fellow formerly incarcerated person and friend, “Detroit Red,” who has turned his life around and now goes by the name Malcolm X. The goal is to help his daughter get clean by placing her in Malcolm’s drug rehabilitation program. While facing the hard reality of the impact of his business on those he holds dear, Johnson decides that the best way to regain control of Harlem is to wage a war between his enemy Chin and the drug supplier Joe Bonanno in an effort to rid himself of them both. This plan allows Bumpy to get the least amount of blood possible on his hands or in the streets of Harlem.
The series seems to be flying under the radars of many, but even the most casual viewer will want to see more after the premiere episode. Here’s why:
1. The Acting
The series is filled with amazing talent. From the cast to the characters, there are serious heavy hitters. From Whitaker as Bumpy Johnson, Giancarlo Esposito as pastor Adam Clayton Powell Jr., and Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, each performance is impressive. Not only are the characters played by great veteran actors like Whitaker, who expertly displays the calm demeanor of Bumpy Johnson, and Vincent D’Onofrio, who encapsulates the eccentric manner of Gigante, the audience is also treated to great performances by up-and-coming talent.
Ilfenesh Hadera and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy give great turns as Johnson’s wife Mayme and his estranged daughter Elise. Lucy Fry and Kelvin Harrison Jr. also give amazing performances as Stella and Teddy, a young interracial couple struggling to keep their relationship a secret from her father Gigante.
Throughout the course of the series, Fry and Harrison give intense performances as a couple madly in love one moment, in extreme fear of her father and the mob in the next, to facing the reality that with racial politics as they are, it would impossible for them to be together. As a result, the actors skillfully portray the wreckage and pain this can cause, with Stella attempting suicide and Teddy drowning his sorrows in alcohol, drugs, and women. At each turn, the audience is pulled in and experiences these moments with them.
Additionally, watching scenes between Thatch and Esposito is like watching a masterclass on scene acting. The way both actors personify their real-life counterparts while demonstrating their differing viewpoints is a treat to see. A shoeshiner in a scene captures it best when he remarks, “I just love seeing those silver-tongued Negroes go at it.” As the show progresses, Esposito and Thatch also show softer sides of their character’s demeanors, especially when they realize that they have more in common than they thought and begin to form an alliance.
2. The Storyline
There are many storylines to become attached to in the Godfather of Harlem. These include the focus on Johnson’s fight to reclaim his turf after serving a sentence Alcatraz, the politics of drug dealing within the Italian mob, the friendly feud between Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and Malcolm X over how the Black community should go about demanding respect from their white counterparts as one believes in Black empowerment, while the other believes in working within the system to change it, the love story between Stella and Teddy, and Johnson’s relationship with his estranged daughter, Elise, and his wife, Mayme, who is raising Elise’s daughter, Margaret.
One of the biggest reveals of the season is set up during earlier episodes when Mayme, in an effort to get rid of her, gives Elise $100 to buy drugs. While under the influence, Elise robs a clothing store that belongs to Gigante and it is uncovered that he has a body buried in the basement. Later, in Johnson’s quest to start a feud between Gigante and Bonanno, he discovers that the body Gigante has buried in the basement is that of Bonanno’s son Lorenzo, who was a former lover of Gigante’s daughter Stella.
Each storyline is so meticulously woven together that somehow they are all covered each week.
3. The Historical Figures
Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Malcolm X, The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Vincent “Chin” Gigante, Muhammed Ali (as a young Cassius Clay) and heavyweight contender Doug Jones are just a few of the historical figures shown in the series. Though the series is based on real people, not true events, having these characters on the screen causes the show appear grounded in history.
The inclusion of old footage from television events like Adam Clayton Powell Jr.’s congressional hearings or the footage from Doug Jones’ fight against a young Cassius Clay not only adds an element of nostalgia to the series but also helps to drive the storyline forward. The fight, for example, is a huge betting draw for those individuals who played “The Numbers,” so it made sense that Gigante and Johnson would attempt to interact with Clay in an effort to fix the fight in order to damage the other’s business. It’s also a pleasant surprise to see Clay counseled by Malcolm X, as the two were known for having a friendship. Context and insight are even given to historical events, like the breakdown in the relationship between Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad. The inclusion of these historical relationships in the series is a huge draw, even if the details are generated more from speculation than fact.
With only one episode left in such an amazing first season, it’s hard to understand why more people aren’t talking about the genius of the show. Episodes are available for streaming through the Epix NOW app and Prime Video so it’s not too late to start watching. Once you do, you’ll likely want binge now and through the holidays!
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