Inspired by a true story, Godfather of Harlem skillfully interweaves the combative and competing forces of the mafia with the battle for civil rights in the mid-‘60s. In the riveting Epix limited series, Godfather of Harlem, we see the character Bumpy Johnson (the exceptional Forest Whitaker) re-enter the world of organized crime after being released from Alcatraz.
Drugs have taken over many of New York’s poor communities, and the Italian mafia runs most of them, now including the crime syndicate of Harlem which had been Bumpy Johnson’s exclusive domain. Not wanting to be a snitch, Johnson survives an eleven-year prison sentence meant for members of the mafia. Upon release, Johnson feels he is owed back his territory. However, Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) refuses to give up the control of Harlem he has seized through brutal means, so brutal they fall outside the boundaries of the mafia’s own code of conduct.
During the turf war that follows, Bumpy Johnson forms an alliance with preacher Malcolm X and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell. This additional subplot of backroom politics and maneuvering gives force to the civil rights movement but threatens to tear the communities apart. And other subplots that overlay the crime drama are a love story reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet and a saga of dysfunctional families compartmentalized by criminal masterminds who are also fathers and husbands. Reminiscent at times of “The Sopranos”, Bumpy Johnson and his daughter in the finale have an unforgettable scene.
If you liked American Gangster with Denzel Washington, you will probably love its prequel, Godfather of Harlem. Denzel’s character Frank Lucas was Bumpy’s right hand until he took over the throne.
Great ensemble cast and some extraordinary dialogue delivered by both major and minor characters. [The co-writer Chris Brancato also created the series Narcos.] This is a real winner!