By Elaine Hegwood Bowens, MSJ
Created by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, and starring and executive produced by Oscar® winner Forest Whitaker, “Godfather Of Harlem” is inspired by the story of infamous crime boss Bumpy Johnson (Whitaker), who in the early 1960s returned from 10 years in prison to find the neighborhood he once ruled in shambles.
With the streets controlled by the Italian mob, Bumpy must take on the Genovese crime family to regain control. During the brutal battle, he forms an alliance with radical preacher Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) – catching Malcolm’s political rise in the crosshairs of social upheaval and a mob war that threatens to tear the city apart. “Godfather Of Harlem” is a collision of the criminal underworld and the Civil Rights Movement during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.
“Godfather of Harlem” is a great entertainment vehicle that is also chock full of history. Whitaker as Bumpy Johnson is trying to pretend to be a family man but all the while still managing his legions of drug dealers.
Thatch is brilliant as Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X, who has been and continues to be a good friend and ally to Bumpy. The show details his rise and fall within the Nation, and also his struggles with his beliefs and his read on what he felt the Nation’s stance on injustices in the Black community should be. For the period and city during which “Godfather of Harlem” is set, the cast wouldn’t be complete without bringing in the grandstanding personality of the first African American to be elected from New York to Congress, Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., who is so ostentatiously portrayed by Giancarlo Esposito. Esposito has that flirtatious aura, for which—based on what I have read about Powell—he was famous, while constantly ogling at and making sexist comments about different women. On the other hand, he was an effective, crafty legislator for his constituents during his 25-plus year reign in politics. Throughout the series, Bumpy’s relationships will be tested, also concerns about fidelity are raised, as well as his devotion to a daughter who had been lost to the streets—a victim of the trade in which Bumpy is so entrenched. But history reveals that he was a friend to many, and community members depended on him for myriad reasons.
Other cast members include Vincent D’Onofrio as Bumpy’s nemesis Vincent “Chin” Gigante, Ilfenesh Hadera as Mayme Johnson, and Antoinette Crowe-Legacy as Elise Johnson, among others. And while episodes are filled with violence, graphic scenes of drug addiction and racial slurs aplenty, the casting, wardrobe and vibe of this 10-episode “history class” are all well presented. Tune in on Sunday nights 9 p.m./8 p.m. Central. “Godfather of Harlem” is streaming on Epix. For more information, visit https://www.epix.com/series/godfather-of-harlem.
Elaine Hegwood Bowen, M.S.J., is the Entertainment Editor for the Chicago Crusader newspaper. She is also the author of “Old School Adventures from Englewood–South Side of Chicago.” For book info, firstname.lastname@example.org.