The Godfather of Harlem
Written by Ana Jones
This issue we are looking at another television series to help keep you entertained at home given stay-at-home orders for many of us, plus the lack of new 2021 movies.
It is the limited series (only 10 episodes per season), Godfather of Harlem, starring Forest Whitaker as the 1960s gangster, Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson, and Vincent D’Onofrio as his frenemy and sometimes business associate Vincent 'Chin' Gigante.
Season one of the historical fiction/crime drama begins with Bumpy being released from Alcatraz after his 10-year jail stint (on a drug conspiracy conviction). The reported TV prequel to the 2007 film, 'American Gangster follows Bumpy’s return to the neighbourhood and his short-lived struggle to acclimatise back into the world as a husband and father fails.
He quickly finds himself drawn back into his old life as Harlem’s crime boss instead. The mafia now owns the streets as well as the drug trade, leaving Bumpy with little choice but to regain the control he once had. He not only takes on the Genovese family but forms an alliance with Nation of Islam minister Malcolm X, the police, FBI and many other historical figures of the era – as and when it suits him.
Along the way we see some (it is fiction after-all) insights into the likes of Adam Clayton Powell Jr – the Baptist pastor, Harlem politician and the first African-American to be elected to Congress. Also in this mix is Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr, more famously known as Muhammad Ali – one of, if not the best heavyweight boxer of all time, activist, entertainer, poet and philanthropist, alongside Sam Cooke (the ‘King of Soul), Sam Christian (founder of the Philadelphia Black Mafia), Robert Morris Morgenthau (a New York district attorney) and others.
Make no mistake, Bumpy is not a nice person, but Forest Whitaker and the star-studded cast are so engaging that you find yourself temporarily overlooking the shootings, beatings, strip joints, gambling rings, drug use and addiction that are scattered throughout the series.
Season two finds Bumpy Johnson (Whitaker) hiding from the Italian crime families as the war for control centres around the lucrative heroin pipeline that runs from Marseilles to New York Harbor. With a distribution syndicate that includes black crime bosses from other major US cities, Bumpy takes a cue from his friend Malcolm X's message of black economic nationalism. His ambitious plan faces challenges – not only from the Italians, but his wife Mayme, daughter Elise, enforcement agents and ex-lovers.
Godfather of Harlem has been described as a collision of the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement during one of the most tumultuous times in American history, earning its MA15+ rating and IMDb 8/10.
Produced by Disney’s ABC Signature Studios, it has received a primetime Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design and also stars: Giancarlo Esposito (Better Call Saul), Australia’s own Lucy Fry (Wolf Creek), Nigel Thatch (Selma, American Dreams), Ilfenesh Hadera (Billions), Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas), Rafi Gavron (A Star is Born) and newcomer Antoinette Crowe-Legacy. The first episode was directed by Academy Award® winner John Ridley (12 Years a Slave).
Season two is currently airing exclusively on Stan Australia with Whitaker as executive producer alongside Nina Yang Bongiovi, James Acheson, John Ridley and Markuann Smith.