'Godfather of Harlem' review: Forest Whitaker delivers a crackling performance as mob boss Bumpy Johnson out to restore parity in Harlem
Believe us when we say it's hard to keep an epic gangster drama review spoiler-free, especially when it has some versatile actors playing legendary characters. Forest Whitaker is that star who's essayed some roles to stunning perfection. His extensive movies and TV shows list marks a decorated Hollywood career and 'Godfather of Harlem' is a compelling fit for the man.
He's played some unconventional roles throughout his career— a comical cop in 'Bloodsport', a disgruntled, yet committed and passionate boxing coach in 'Southpaw', and now he essays a mob head with absolute elan. The new Epix hour-long series set in the '60s sees him play a charismatic criminal, Bumpy Johnson (A real-life New York Crime boss ) who's released from Alcatraz prison and returns to Harlem.
It's easy to start drawing parallels with 'The Godfather'. Although Whitaker is very unlike Marlon Brando's Vito Corleone, this is a man with some lofty goals and ambitions. It's isn't just about ruling with an iron fist, it's about restoring parity in a rather chaotic kingdom which is attributed to the Italian mafia. Plus, it's his choice, and he makes it personal. Five episodes were screened for review and 'Godfather of Harlem' is exciting and eggs you to just keep going. Epix's 'Pennyworth', a prequel that traces the life of Batman's butler, Alfred has a popcorn element to it, and so does this '60s gangster tale.
The cast too delivers some impressive performances. Nigél Thatch as Malcolm X shines as the American Muslim minister and human rights activist who was a popular figure during the civil rights movement. He was best known for his controversial advocacy for the rights of blacks. The tumult of the '60s Harlem which was in the vice-like grip of a heroin crisis is captured brilliantly in the crime drama. Residents are subject to regular brutality by the police and there is an honest attempt to capture the uprising. Executive music producer Swizz Beat breathes life into these situations by dishing out some stellar tunes to complement the scenario.
Vincent D'Onofrio plays Vincent "The Chin" Gigante, the New York Italian-American mobster in the American Mafia who was boss of the Genovese crime family from 1981 to 2005 and Giancarlo Esposito essays Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a Baptist pastor, and an American politician, who represented the Harlem neighborhood. The duo are a powerhouse with Thatch and Esposito representing two different routes for change. One's an idealist and the other is quite realistic. Created by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, Epix's 'Godfather of Harlem' is a visual treat, both a socially motivated series and as a gangster saga.
If Epix is looking to deliver a sure shot winner, 'Godfather of Harlem just might be the series to get that hit.
'Godfather of Harlem' debuts on September 29, 2019, on EPIX