“I got guns,” legendary gangster Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker) announces. “I got soldiers,” Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) replies. For Epix’s new Godfather of Harlem — a Sixties period piece that mixes Mob action with civil-rights rhetoric — it’s a match made in gritty-drama heaven.
Co-created by the Narcos team of Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, Harlem is the sort of thing you may be inclined to watch if you’re inclined to watch this sort of thing — for good and for ill. Think Boardwalk Empire, a few decades later and without the loftier artistic ambitions, only this one keeps the real gangster named Johnson at the center of it(*). It’s just good enough for fans of period crime dramas, without seeming interested in (or capable of) finding another level.
(*) Steve Buscemi’s Boardwalk character, Nucky Thompson, was based on the historical figure Nucky Johnson, but that show changed the name to allow itself greater license to fictionalize the story. And Erik LaRay Harvey plays one of Bumpy’s lieutenants here, just as he did for Chalky White on Boardwalk.
The cast is absurdly stacked beyond Whitaker (and Thatch, who’s less well known but already played Malcolm in Ava DuVernay’s Selma). Giancarlo Esposito plays Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., whose ties to the establishment (he spends a lot of time negotiating with envoys from JFK) make him a spiritual opposite to Malcolm. As infamous wiseguys Vincent ‘Chin’ Gigante, Frank Costello, and Joe Bonanno, the show goes top-shelf with, respectively, Vincent D’Onofrio, Paul Sorvino, and Chazz Palminteri. Even a relatively thankless role (as the genre unfortunately seems to mandate) like Bumpy’s wife Mayme gets a strong performer in Ilfenesh Hadera (She’s Gotta Have It).
The series opens in 1963 with Bumpy finishing a long prison stretch in Alcatraz, returning home to find his old territory overrun with Mafioso who (other than Bumpy’s mentor Costello) have little interest in letting him retake what’s his. As Gigante puts it with a sneer: “You know that nobody likes you people getting all loud and boisterous, right?” Malcolm, who knew Bumpy when he himself was a criminal still using the name Malcolm Little, offers to help take back the neighborhood from these white interlopers. And before you can say the name of a dozen or more similar antihero dramas of the last 20 years, there’s a tangled web of shaky alliances, plotted betrayals, and problems whose solutions inevitably create three more problems.
The caliber of the cast — and the fact that so many of them are actors of color, when most of this territory in cable and streaming is still covered by white men — distinguishes the material to a degree. D’Onofrio is at the more scenery-chewing end of his range, and the early episodes mostly have Esposito in glad-handing mode. But Forest Whitaker is a striking, dangerous presence no matter how familiar the material. The creators carefully dole out his remarkable onscreen temper — and give us plenty of time with him playing gentle papa to young daughter Margaret (Demi Singleton) as contrast to his criminal work — so that it has extra impact when it hits. And the soundtrack, curated by Swizz Beatz, deftly mixes period tunes (and a few new songs meant to sound like Sixties soul) with original hip-hop. The more modern tracks can break the illusion of a bygone Harlem that the production works so hard to create, but it functions on the level of myth, and the show can feel almost as much like folklore as it does like historical fiction.
Bumpy and Malcolm did know each other in real life, though Mayme Johnson’s biography of her husband, Harlem Godfather, only devotes a couple of paragraphs to their connection. Malcolm is much more prominent in this telling, even if he and Bumpy are mostly working at cross purposes, particularly when it comes to their goals for Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), a young addict with whom Bumpy was once close. Bumpy knows he needs to traffic dope in the neighborhood to hold Chin and the other Italians at bay, while Malcolm laments the way “we narcotize ourselves against being black in America.” Bumpy’s not an obscure figure. His life has appeared on screen before (Clarence Williams III played him in American Gangster, for instance). But as happened on Boardwalk Empire with the more famous characters like Al Capone or Meyer Lansky, there are times when the historical weight of Malcolm (and the sober straightforwardness of Thatch’s performance) can throw off the balance of a series that’s meant to be about Bumpy.
But the show also points out how aware Bumpy is of the limits of his power and infamy. As Elise puts it at one point, “He may be a big man in Harlem, but if he goes south of 110th Street, he just another n—-r. I don’t think he can ever get over that.” He’ll never achieve the stature of the most iconic cinematic Godfathers, and that resentment drives the better moments of this Godfather.
Godfather of Harlem premieres September 29th on Epix. I’ve seen the first five episodes.