Godfather of Harlem—Partners in Crime

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!

“Southpaw”—Left-handed Compliment

SouthpawThe boxing movie genre—Raging Bull, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby, The Fighter (see July 11, 2011 review)—is commonly tackled in movies because of its inherent drama and overt conflict between the protagonist, a down-and-out boxer and a champion. “Southpaw” neatly fits into this mold, but the story has some interesting surprises, not just a re-tread of previous boxing blockbusters.

Of course, it is a story about how life knocks you down—literally—only to force the protagonist back onto his or her feet. Through Antoine Fuqua’s sensitive direction, excellent dialogue and performances, “Southpaw” transcends the stereotypes and clichés. The roles of the wife (a stellar supporting role by Rachel McAdams) and his young daughter, Leila (newcomer Oona Laurence) add heft and connection to the protagonist’s humanity that is pivotal and essential for the plot’s emotional stakes.

Billy Hope (a physically transformed and bulked up Jake Gyllenhaal), the reigning junior middleweight boxing champion, has an impressive career, a loving wife and daughter, and a lavish lifestyle. However, when tragedy strikes, Billy hits rock bottom, losing his family, his house and his manager. He soon finds an unlikely savior in Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker), a former fighter who trains the city’s toughest amateur boxers, who alone can teach Billy how to temper the almost blinding rage that both drives and traps him. Tick’s backstory is never revealed, but hints at similar rage in his heyday.

The grippingly raw and honest acting of Jake Gyllenhaal definitely sets this film apart, making his performance Academy-Award worthy.The actors in supporting roles also share in the quality of “Southpaw”. Rachel McAdams’s role as the strong wife, Maureen, clearly impacts the trajectory her husband must take for the remaining portion of the film. Bespectacled little Oona Laurence shares some intensely emotional scenes with Gyllenhaal and holds her own.

Beyond the great acting, there are a few loose ends:

  • Who was responsible for what happened to the wife?
  • What is the former manager’s malfeasance?
  • What is the backstory of the trainer?
  • Is there more to Billy’s absence as a father, and his past relationship with his little girl?
  • How does the title “Southpaw” add to the narrative?

Nonetheless , Jake Gyllenhaal owns this film and made it an extraordinary boxing film to watch.

Note: As in most of Fuqua’s films, the fight scenes are extremely brutal and bloody, adding to the tension.