'Godfather of Harlem' Episode 1 review: 'By whatever means necessary' sets tone, introduces gent Bumpy Johnson who can turn savage
Forest Whitaker has played a wide range of roles and is the perfect choice to play Bumpy. His charisma, the calm facade and the switch to the brutal, is a treat to watch.
This review contains spoilers for 'Godfather of Harlem' ep.1: 'By whatever means necessary'
EPIX may just have another hit on its hands with 'Godfather of Harlem'. Based on the real-life story of Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Forest Whitaker) in the early '60s, the gangster drama doesn't hold back and is pacy from the get-go. The opening shot is a spectacular view of the Alcatraz Prison and we see a solemn-looking Whitaker released after a 10-year time, just to see his neighborhood in utter shambles. The Italian mob is now the street leader and Bumpy must take on the Genovese crime family and restore some parity.
It's hard to dislike Bumpy, he appears a thorough gentleman but could hit savage mode easily. He's fearless, yet there's a side to him that loves his people and his hood. His adversary in the first episode is Vincent “The Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) who is also running the heroin trade at that time. He forms an unlikely alliance with Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch), a man who is bent on leading a movement forward in America with defined motivations and ambitions. It's a bit of a love-hate between the two, however, the onus in episode 1 is purely on Bumpy, and how he's one step ahead of his adversaries. Together, they hit Gigante's warehouses ridding the hood of heroin.
'By whatever means necessary', the title of the pilot wastes no time in putting Bumpy in the thick of things. His verbal showdown with Gigante is followed by a mission to rescue Teddy Greene (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) after he puts himself in danger by being involved in a forbidden romance with Stella Gigante (Lucy Fry), the mob gangster's daughter. This is followed by a shooting attempt on Bumpy which Zambrano (Louis Cancelmi) orchestrates but fails. Up to this point, Bumpy is a man who's come out of prison with bigger plans, but with this, he ensures he needs to take control, and that echoes the title of the episode.
It is also at this stage, his ruthlessness comes into the picture. Zambrano to him was a mere thug who needed to be shown his place and Bumpy sets a trap to kill him. It's the manner he kills him that gives you the shudders and the shivers. Also, its a warning to not mess with the man.
Whitaker has played a wide range of roles and is the perfect choice to play Bumpy. His charisma, the calm facade and the switch to being a brutal, vicious criminal is a treat to watch. Not to mention, he finds able to support in a cast that's impeccable. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. (a playful Giancarlo Esposito), Ilfenesh Hadera as Mayme Johnson and Thatch as Malcolm X. From the looks of it, there has been meticulous research poured into making the series. The dramatic additions bode well and help in establishing some background info of the real-life characters.
Like we said in our spoiler-free review, 'Godfather of Harlem' is a visual treat, both as a socially motivated series and as a gangster saga. Complementing every scene is music. Swizz Beatz. Rick Ross and DMX's 'Just In Case' sets the tone for pacy, tightly woven series. There are a few subplots that come in in the final few minutes, but with another nine episodes to go, it's sure to be tied up. The tumult of the '60s Harlem which was in the vice-like grip of a heroin crisis is captured brilliantly in the crime drama.
Created by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, 'Godfather of Harlem' premiered on Epix, September 29.