EPIX put out a decent amount of new shows this year, and one of them is Godfather of Harlem. Shows like American Gangster and Hoodlum have used some of the same real-life characters before, so it’s not unfamiliar ground for many, but there’s no telling how close it is to the reality of the era. Based on the premise, I predicted cancellation.
Ignoring the historical roots for a moment, the premise is a black crime boss returns from Alcatraz to his old neighbourhood in Harlem. According to the show, he went down on a narcotics bust that the mafia families had screwed up, and yet he took the hit and didn’t snitch. So he has some goodwill on his side. But he wants his business back. While he’s been gone, the Italians have taken it over, from 110th to 160th Street. I found two scenes particularly compelling in the opening episode.
First was his return to his old neighbourhood. His wife has a welcome home party for him, and as he wanders around the room talking to people, they all have the same pattern — welcoming him home and then mentioning business to him or asking indirectly for money. The local don is back, and everybody seems to want a piece of the action again.
The second was a scene where he makes a deal with Malcolm X and Reverend Powell to get something they each want. Yes, Malcolm X. And Malcolm isn’t too happy he’s being used by the crime boss, but if there’s a deal that furthers his agenda too, he’s open to it.
But what makes the show is a combination of the tone (earnest, aggressive camera angles) and the acting. Forest Whitaker plays Bumpy Johnson, the returning crime boss, and he is outstanding. I fell in love with Whitaker back in the day for Good Morning, Vietnam, although Platoon, Bloodsport and the Color of Money didn’t hurt either. Obviously, 30 years later, he’s more mature, and that older calmer man is capable of a much different, more nuanced performance. He’s got henchmen and family running around, but it’s when he’s working that he truly shines.
Vincent D’Onofrio plays his Italian counterpart who took over the business. He looks smaller and healthier than the behemoth that was Wilson Fisk (Daredevil), but I doubt he’ll ever match the magic of Law and Order: Criminal Intent. That was just pure heaven in the early days. Here he does a great job of wheels within wheels of machinations.
Paul Sorvino has a small part as a mafia don, and he’s decent, while Giancarlo Esposito plays Reverend Powell well too. But in the opener, it was Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X who truly outclassed everyone in every scene. Part writing, part character, part actor, but it was awesome.
And while I was expecting The Sopranos with black people, the episode is so much more. And I’ll change my prediction. Now that I have seen an episode, I have to predict that EPIX will renew it. The actors are too good not to be renewed.