I don't remember much about the 1990 movie Dick Tracy, except that Madonna was in it and that the mobsters in the movie had dopey nicknames like Pruneface, Alphonse "Big Boy" Caprice, and Ribs Mocca — pronounced with that kind of old-timey gangster accent ("Say, what's the big idea?") I delight in hearing every time I watch reruns of The Three Stooges. I mention all this because I felt the same kind of cartoonish gangster giddiness while watching Godfather of Harlem, Epix's new series starring Forest Whitaker as Bumpy Johnson, the real-life crime boss in Harlem during the 1950s and early '60s.
One thing I greatly admire about this show is how it animates pieces of black history that haven't been explored much, even if the storylines — which involve black heroes Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell — are likely fluffed up a bit. But Godfather of Harlem is not about an exemplary hero; rather, it's about a complicated antihero, a mythic figure in black gangster lore.
In his day, Ellsworth Raymond "Bumpy" Johnson oversaw numbers-running, drug-dealing, and weapons-trafficking operations in Harlem during a romantic period that saw black business and creativity flourishing, as well as the sparks of the Civil Rights Movement. Bumpy is equal parts community hero and criminal mastermind, a man who controlled the flow of heroin and guns while at the same time aligning with power brokers including Malcolm X (played in the series by Nigel Thatch) to keep peace on the streets.
Godfather of Harlem begins as Johnson is coming home from Alcatraz (he got arrested 40-something times in real life) and looking to re-establish control of Harlem. This means negotiations as tough as they are violent with legendary mobsters like Vincent 'Chin' Gigante (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Frank Costello (Paul Sorvino). Groups align and battle by racial lines, with the Italians, blacks and Latinos flexing power united or individually depending on present needs. As Bumpy, something like a black Tony Soprano, beats back criminal colleagues at his heels, he also does a delicate dance within his own community, using Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) to yield influence in the local political sphere. There's personal drama too: his daughter Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) is an addict, and wife Mayme (lfenesh Hadera) is struggling to maintain a pleasant facade as she juggles the complications that come with being a gangster's wife. It's a sparkling cast, and, bolstered by lush production, they create a world of glamorous danger.
It's weakest in the writing. As alluded to previously, The Godfather of Harlem uses a lot of vintage gangster slang, as well as typical mob-story tropes, that sometimes make it ring almost cartoonish at times; Bumpy spits out one-liners and slices throats like some sort of comic book mercenary. But it works. It's gritty, pulpy and unpredictable and confident in a swagger that's not really trying to emulate the soft nuances of "prestige" crime dramas like Breaking Bad or The Sopranos. Though its gifted actors are sometimes stifled by corny dialogue ("I just wish Kennedy had as much appreciation for my legislation as he does for Marilyn Monroe's legs," Esposito gets to say in one of the five episodes sent to critics), Godfather of Harlem has a way of sucking viewers into its seductive sphere, where silly asides live comfortably with explosive, gory violence as well as informed dreams of what Harlem might've been like at a pivotal point in history.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Godfather of Harlem premieres Sunday, Sept. 29 on Epix.