Godfather of Harlem is a modern look into the past which is both unflinching and hopeful. It’s a crime drama, yes, but the law-breaking cuts both ways. Forest Whitaker plays real life New York Crime boss Bumpy Johnson after he got out of Alcatraz prison for taking the fall for the mob in a heroin deal.
The series leaves out one true fact which could have been extremely cinematic. When Johnson got out of Alcatraz, the people of Harlem threw him a ticker tape parade. It wasn’t planned. It happened spontaneously. That’s how much Bumpy was loved in the hood. His family moved to Harlem when Bumpy was 10 years old. His brother William was accused of killing a white man in Charleston, South Carolina. Born on Halloween 1905, he got the nickname “Bumpy” because he had a slightly deformed head. He used that head to rise to the top of the underworld, and his 11 year stint was a point of honor.
Now that Bumpy’s out, the old dog has to learn new tricks to play on the streets. He’s competing with the Italian mobs. The Italians are competing with the cops. Harlem is in chaos. Bumpy comes home to a party in his honor but, like the wedding scene in The Godfather, he is asked for all kinds of favors he cannot refuse. Bumpy takes care of his soldiers’ families. Whitaker’s performance is reminiscent of Marlon Brando’s Vito Corleone, in his restraint. Corleone was eminently reasonable. Bumpy has a higher purpose. Looking at The Godfather of Harlem through a Mario Puzo filter, would make the character Big Dick Buster the series’ Luca Brasi, only with even bigger balls.
The acting talent is beyond first rate. The performances are thoughtful and nuanced. Giancarlo Esposito looks like he’s having the time of his life playing a celebrated and flawed historical character. And what a character: The Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., who represents Harlem in Congress, gets accused in the press of having a three-way dalliance in Paris, and basically says “I wish.” He then goes on to defend both the reality and the fantasy. This is a man of God playing politics, and Esposito plays him with opportunistic gusto. He doesn’t miss a chance to backtrack on any emotion or motive within a blink of an eye to reveal and disguise his inner thinking. In a band, he would be the lead guitar.
The bass is Nigél Thatch’s Malcolm X. Deep, low and steady but rising and pushing the beat. Thatch is very comfortable in Malcolm X’s skin, reprising the role he captured with such fire in Ava DuVernay’s Selma. The five episodes given to journalists didn’t include it, but it’s a good bet Malcolm and the Honorable Elijah Muhammad will be at odds over the head of the Nation of Islam’s penchant for the flesh in the second half. The series doesn’t back down from Malcolm’s young hustling days, when he straightened his hair and dyed it red before his civic epiphany. And it doesn’t soften the acts of justice found in Islam which you don’t find in the Bible. In the very first episode Malcolm X tells Johnson, “You have guns, but I have an army.” Malcolm X steals crowds from Powell on his own pulpit as religious debate makes its way to street protests. It’s fun to watch Thatch and Esposito maneuver their characters in dissonant harmony.
Forest Whitaker is a marvel of calm except for two scenes. In one, he is angry at a street massacre. His explosion does not come out as rage. His sadness bursts through like machine gun fire. I have been an unabashed fan of his since he promised a young Charlie Sheen a happy ending to a medevac in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. You feel for every character Whitaker has ever played, including Idi Amin. Whitaker is a very subtle actor, and brings an incredible intimacy to the small screen. He also has unbelievable body control. There are scenes in The Crying Game where only his forehead is acting. Episode 3 includes a scene where he was given bad news about his daughter. Whitaker does this thing with his eye. It flutters underneath itself. It is amazing. It is so subtle and so effective. It is not an affected tic. It barely registers on the eye, but it’s there and says so much. That millisecond tells a history.
Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson was Harlem’s crime boss for more than 30 years. During his early reign he did it with style. There is a scene in the 1991 gangster movie Billy Bathgate, where Otto Berman tells the young title character to buy nice clothes. Dutch Schultz’s men have to look sharp. (Berman is also the only gangster to ever fix the numbers racket, which happens at the midpoint in Godfather of Harlem). Humphrey Bogart’s Baby Face Martin goes over the cost of each piece of cloth on his body, silk, thirty bucks, in the 1937 gangster classic Dead End. Godfather of Harlem captures uptown 60s fashions fastidiously.
During his heyday, Johnson hung with celebrities like Billie Holiday and Sugar Ray Robinson. He had affairs with Lena Horne, and Helen Lawrenson, the editor of Vanity Fair. In the series, he socializes with Cassius Clay (Deric Augustine). There were only five episodes made available for reviewers, but it is safe to predict Clay will proclaim his religion proudly and take on his Muslim name Muhammad Ali. As in life, the series shows the feds have more bugs in the Muslim mosques than they do at the Italian social clubs.
The Italian mobsters have less dimension in the series. Vincent D’Onofrio‘s performance is internal to make up for it. Chin’s got a lot on his plate. He’s only an acting boss while Genovese is up the river. He’s got Paul Sorvino’s Frank Costello up his ass for any infraction on the action of the uptown faction. And he’s got to fend off late-to-the party interloper Joe Bonanno (Chazz Palminteri), who Chin calls “Joe Bananas.” Bonanno hated that nickname. He dedicated half a chapter to it in his memoir A Man of Honor: The Autobiography of Joseph Bonanno. Sorvino and Palminteri are playing what they are in life, seasoned vets who fought this turf and bring the familiarity of traditional mob stories.
The real Bumpy was a different kind of crime boss. He was cool, in a jazz sense. His poetry was published in local magazines during the Harlem Renaissance. The series’ character first exhibits this when he gives the “Louisville lip” to a young Cassius Clay, as they good-naturedly spar with rhyme during an exhibition. Bumpy ends with the couplet “you don’t know who I am so I’ll forgive your behavior. But after three rounds with me you’d be on your knees to your savior.” The series also gets into Clay’s relationship with Malcolm X. “His name is Clay,” Malcolm says at one point. “He can be molded.”
Johnson was mentored by gangster William “Bub” Hewlett after the young gang leader repeatedly robbed the older gangster’s storefront territory. Bumpy was hired out as a bodyguard to neighborhood numbers bankers. In the 1920s and 1930s, Harlem was the center of a turf war with Jewish mob boss Dutch Schultz, from the Bronx. Bumpy had also been recently released from prison in 1932 when he met and partnered up with Harlem’s crime queen Stephanie St. Clair and her gang the 40 Thieves. Bumpy picked off Schultz’s men during the numbers war. This was easy according to his wife Mayme, played by Ilfenesh Hadera in the series. They were the only white men walking around Harlem. Lucky Luciano himself gave the order to whack Schultz. Bumpy negotiated a peace with honor with the head of the five families and the two played chess regularly in front of the YMCA on 135th Street. Paul Sorvino’s Frank Costello apparently has kept up the game, and also keeps Bumpy in the loop.
The romance subplot of Gigante’s daughter Stella (Lucy Fry) and the songwriting guitarist Teddy Greene (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), which includes a kidnapping, a botched hit and a pass on a hit record, at first seems to bog the series down. But it opens further possibilities of social commentary through music. His song is called “Rise,” and it was inspired by a protest staged outside a store called Fiddler’s, which Gigante owns. The strongest comments in the series are conversational. Bumpy’s daughter is raped and Bumpy responds by saying he wants to kill ever man who’s laid hands on her. But who is that for, she wants to know, him or her? Does it prove love or mark territory?
Heroin is a commodity to Bumpy, and a community’s misery for Malcolm X, who establishes a clinic for addicts to detox. Dooji, which is what heroin is called, is all over the place. But it’s either a scourge or stock. By the second episode, Bumpy’s crew is employing fairly ingenious ways to move product throughout the neighborhood. This allows the series to disseminate surreptitious commentary, though it’s not subtle when you think about it. The gangsters distribute the drugs through Palmetto Pesticides. It is an infestation. Bumpy isn’t blind to either side of it.
This reviewer has to admit, during a scene where Bumpy balks at ratting out Italian numbers runners, I almost cheered. “I’m not a snitch,” he says. Part of it is because of Powell’s way of saying tick-tock. Bumpy smiles, frowns, and measures his ethics. We can see him laughing at himself and the dilemma of street code. He did eight years in Alcatraz rather than give up Italians and they honestly appreciated it. He had their respect. He wasn’t about to putting that on the line by being a rat. It may be a blow to civil justice, but it is a plus for gangster entertainment, and Godfather of Harlem is very entertaining.
The series captures the turmoil of the early 1960s. The Civil Rights Movement marches through the violence in Harlem, which is in the grip of a heroin crisis. Residents routinely endure police brutality. But the show also tries to capture spark of change which would go on to ignite the nation. A lot of that is done musically by executive music producer Swizz Beat, who also brings a modern soundtrack to update the feel. Bumpy is sprung from Alcatraz in 1963. One of the first things Mayme points out is James Brown is playing the Apollo. “Heat Wave” by Martha and the Vandellas comes out of the car radio.
Created by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein for Epix, Godfather of Harlem is watchable as both a socially motivated series and as a gangster saga. The story feels relevant even though it’s more than half a century old. The producers keep the spirit of the time and are true to the characters of history. The series is also true to mob rules, like when Costello gives Gigante an option to take a mobster home to his family or “lose him out at sea.” The real life Bumpy Johnson may have helped secure the boat to steer the only successful escape from Alcatraz Island in 1962, though he stayed to finish his own sentence rather than live life as a fugitive. Whitaker’s Bumpy breaks out and breaks free.
Godfather of Harlem premieres on Sept. 29 on Epix.
Culture Editor Tony Sokol is an old school geek who cut his teeth on the wire services and also wrote and produced New York City’s Vampyr Theatre and the rock opera AssassiNation: We Killed JFK. Read more of his work here or find him on Twitter @tsokol.