From the creator of Narcos Chris Brancato comes this heavily fictionalised account of the life of the African American mobster Bumpy Johnson. The show starts off with Bumpy’s return to Harlem after a decade in prison and chronicles his attempts to reclaim his neighbourhood from the Italian mob. Bumpy portrayed here by Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker finds his arch nemesis in Vincent “ Chin” Gigante played by Vincent D’Onforio. Set in New York City of the early 60s, Bumpy is seen to be closely associated with prominent figures of African American community of the era, namely Malcom X and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the first African American Congressman from New York. JFK and Martin Luther King are other historical figures who do not appear on the show but are constantly referred to and are major influencers of the socio political situation that Bumpy Johnson and his crew thrives in. There’s even a scene where Muhammad Ali when he was still Cassius Clay reaches out to Bumpy Johnson at a crucial juncture in his career. The show indulges in a bit of magical realism when Bumpy Johnson, Malcom X, Adam Clayton Powell and the Italian Mob are seen cheering for their favorite contender in the 1963 bout between Cassius Clay and Doug Jones. Though there’s no actual record of Malcolm X or Bumpy being present at Madison Square Garden to watch the match, it’s almost as if we are reliving history, that’s how well made this show is.
Godfather of Harlem is an incredibly well written show and it strikes the right balance between drama and history. Bumpy Johnson is no saint though he is portrayed as a mobster with a philosophical bent of mind, who plays chess and has a liking for literature. But he is ruthless and doesn’t blink an eye when he has to take a life. He also destroys the very community that he stands for when he indulges in the drug trade and ultimately sows the seeds for the opoid crisis. The show also dwells on how this in fact affects his personal life through the character of his estranged daughter. Johnson’s wife Mayme Johnson whose biography supposedly provided much insight for the writing is an influential figure in his life and the community and is portrayed by Ilfenesh Hadera. Another influential New York socialite Amy Venderbilt who had a soft spot for Bumpy and whom he turns to for help on more occasions than one is played by Joanne Kelley.
Chris Brancato believes that Goodfellas rather than The Godfather is closer to reality when it comes to the mafia and he says that ultimately they’re all driven by money and the idea that dealing in drugs was against a code of honor was actually a myth. According to him it was the harsher prison sentences that made the Italians wary initially. Bumpy Johnson wanted to study law but he couldn’t simply because the college wouldn’t accept him on account of his ethnicity. For a person like him in those times, a life of crime was one way to climb the social ladder. The Italian mafia being the mafia never holds back when it comes to expressing their hatred for other ethnic groups and their approach to the African American community is no different , there’s no veil here. It’s against this system that Bumpy goes up which makes him the hero figure in his community and the story. Thrown in the midst is a love story between the mob boss’s daughter and an aspiring African American singer, the repercussions of which Bumpy uses to his advantage. Most of the story is set against the backdrop of the Civil Rights Movement. Malcom X who believes that Islam is the path of emancipation for his community is at loggerheads with Martin Luther King as well as Rev. Powell who is a Christian minister. In fact the final episode of S01 is named “Chickens come home to roost” , which was Malcom X’s response to the JFK assassination. Nigel Tatch plays Malcom X here and interestingly he played the same role in Selma. Giancarlo Esposito is a revelation as the flamboyant and controversial Rev. Powell. All of these characters have their own agendas and a symbiotic relationship too and the show is as much about them as it is about Bumpy. Ultimately they’re all fighting oppression in their own ways and at the end of the day that’s what the show is ultimately about and there couldn’t be a more apt title. Godfather of Harlem indeed. It would be a crime not to mention the brilliant soundtrack of this show, which is one of best albums to hit the screens after Black Panther. Look out for Forest Whitaker’s “gangsta walk” to the tune of Cross the Path in opening scene of S01 E02. The show also won the Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Title Design.