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'Godfather of Harlem' review: Forest Whitaker shines as uptown crime boss

Nigél Thatch as Malcolm X and Forest Whitaker

Nigél Thatch as Malcolm X and Forest Whitaker as Bumpy Johnson in Epix's "Godfather of Harlem."  Photo Credit: Epix/David Lee

SERIES "Godfather of Harlem"

WHEN|WHERE Streaming on EPIX (Not available on Optimum, but is on Roku and Apple TV Channels, as well as through the EPIX Now app ($5.99 a month; first 7 days free), and on Amazon Prime (also $5.99 per month extra).

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In March, 1963, Harlem crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Forest Whitaker) is released from Alcatraz, and returns to New York to reclaim his turf — 110th Street north to 160th. But in his years away, the Genovese crime family has moved in, and Bumpy has to maneuver past Vincent “Chin” Gigante (Vincent D'Onofrio) and finesse some other crime bosses, like Frank Costello (Paul Sorvino) and Joseph Bonanno (Chazz Palminteri). Bumpy's wife, Mayme (Ilfenesh Hadera) wants him to pull out of the turf wars, but (you know the line) they keep pulling him back in. Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell  (Giancarlo Esposito ) and Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch, who also played Malcolm X in "Selma") are engaged in their own turf battle for the hearts and minds of Harlem. (This 11-parter from "Narcos" co-creators Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein  was shot in New York.)

MY SAY When Johnson died in 1968 at the age of 62, his death was largely overlooked in the mainstream New York press, but the Paper of Record did accord him a brief notice. "He was admired," the anonymous Times obit delicately observed, "despite his criminal record, because of his strong sense of personal independence." A cop told the paper, "he was a staunch race man [and] never [gave] in." A relative explained the handle: "He took the bumps of life."

So, who better than Whitaker in his first series lead to play someone who took the "bumps of life" — in this instance, mobster, cipher, father, Robin Hood, Harlem legend, and, doubtless, coldblooded killer? There's a lot to play here and Whitaker gets to them all, vividly, in Sunday's launch. 

Like a few other A-listers, Whitaker is late to TV, at least as a series regular. "Empire" and "Criminal Minds" were memorable, if quick, paychecks but "Godfather" is a whole other planet. There are fleeting traces of past performances here — the assassin Ghost Dog, even Idi Amin, if you really want to go there — but "Bird" may be closest, at least in terms of legwork. He immersed himself in the life and times of Charlie Parker to become Parker and he's clearly done a deep dive with Johnson too. 

 There's a sang-froid to his Bumpy, also a humanity. He can be impulsively savage, or impulsively funny. When he returns to finish an ice cream sundae with his daughter following a wild shootout with a would-be assassin, he's reasonably asked what just happened.

"We both missed," he reasonably replies. 

Whitaker and the rest of the cast are first-rate, but what's most compelling about "Godfather" are its apparent ambitions. This is the rare portrait of Harlem at the outset of a cultural and social revolution, of other "race men" and the world they were about to change. It's a mob story entangled with a civil rights one, and a crime boss who brutally coveted his "personal independence." A compelling  series would seem unavoidable.

 

BOTTOM LINE Whitaker gets his first series lead role, with predictable results — all good. 

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