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Godfather of Harlem - Just in Case ft. Swizz Beatz, Rick Ross, DMX

Godfather of Harlem - Just in Case ft. Swizz Beatz, Rick Ross, DMX

Godfather of Harlem - Just in Case ft. Swizz Beatz, Rick Ross, DMX

‘Godfather of Harlem’ Review: EPIX’s Overstuffed Gangster Drama Should Entertain Fans of the Genre
Starring Forest Whitaker, the 1960s-set series is inspired by the real-life story of infamous crime boss Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson.

“Godfather of Harlem” is inspired by the real-life story of infamous crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Forest Whitaker), who, in the early 1960s, returned home from a 10-year stint in Alcatraz, to find the neighborhood he once ruled in shambles. With the streets now controlled by the Italian mob, Bumpy must take on the Genovese crime family, which requires he form alliances with Civil Rights leaders. A gangster story entwined with the sociopolitical battles of the period, the new series certainly has high goals. It will appeal to fans of period gangster dramas looking to be purely entertained. But even with its ambitions, its embracing of the genre’s cliches, its at-times strained credulity, and overstuffed plot lines may keep new audiences away.

Within a few minutes into the first episode, a fearless and armed Bumpy, fresh out the can, confronts his main adversary, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio), now the face of the Genovese family. The soft-spoken Bumpy, who is as much a gentleman as he is a vicious gangster, wants to reclaim what was once his, but Gigante doesn’t intend to oblige.

And so the turf war begins against the backdrop of a city in social upheaval, as the criminal underworld and the nascent Civil Rights movement collide.

A highlight of the series is its attempt to detail the real-life complicated relationships that existed between Bumpy and key African-American leaders, who sought to exploit his infamy and reach. They include Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch, reprising his “Selma” role) and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (a playful Giancarlo Esposito). They aren’t just background fodder. Their ambitions and motivations are defined, each on different paths to power, with ideas on how to lead the movement forward in an America that seemingly wasn’t ready for it.

Additionally, the role of Bumpy Johnson — a man who was admired despite his brutal criminality, because of his strong sense of family and personal independence — provides Whitaker with yet another dynamic character, adding to a resume that’s chockfull of eclectic roles. His quiet charisma is perfectly suited for Bumpy’s controlled compulsion for violence cascading under a calm exterior.

And the rest of the main cast — which also includes Ilfenesh Hadera as Mayme Johnson, Bumpy’s wife; as well as Kelvin Harrison, Jr. and Lucy Fry as doomed interracial lovers — chew on the material they are given to work with, even if it’s sometimes thin.

Notably, the series’ depictions of its Italian mobsters lean more towards caricature. They lack fuller and more sympathetic glimpses into the Italian-American experience of the era, even as it frames that glimpse through the lens of organized crime, and “Godfather of Harlem” suffers for it.

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