Roush Review: The Colorful, Evocative 'Godfather of Harlem' Promises Tragedy for All

Matt Roush
Review EPIX

Take it from an expert, as embattled Harlem crime boss Bumpy Johnson quips while scheming to outwit his enemies: "Sometimes to be the new dog, you need an old trick."

The grin erupting across Forest Whitaker's expressive face speaks volumes about his passion for playing this real-life, and larger-than-life, character in Godfather of Harlem. Bumpy seems to know everyone who mattered to his urban neighborhood during the turbulent 1960s.

That includes Malcolm X (Selma's Nigél Thatch), who goes way back with Bumpy from his criminal days as "Detroit Red." Malcolm sees Bumpy as "a stone with many facets: intellect, rage, pent-up emotion." To which Bumpy's estranged junkie daughter, Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), dolefully adds, "Pride."

The colorful, evocative Godfather of Harlem opens in 1963 with Bumpy's return after a decade in Alcatraz. When told how much things have changed, he declares, "I haven't." But he's going to have to prove it. The streets he once ruled have been usurped by Italian mobsters, including the Genovese family, being led by combative Vincent "Chin" Gigante (Vincent D'Onofrio). "You and me are going to be at war till one of us is dead," Bumpy tells his nemesis in a typically unsubtle exchange.

Forest Whitaker Teases His 'Ruthless but Sensitive' Mobster on 'Godfather of Harlem'

Forest Whitaker Teases His 'Ruthless but Sensitive' Mobster on 'Godfather of Harlem'

The Oscar winner, who plays Harlem crime boss Bumpy Johnson in the Epix series, opens up about his preparation process.

He's probably right. The first half of Godfather's 10-episode season (all that was available for review) tracks their bloody rivalry in a battle for control of Harlem's lucrative street-drug trade. And yet in their world, just about everyone's a hustler. Bumpy sees Malcolm as an opportunist seeking high-profile recruits to his faith, including, in a memorable subplot, rising prizefighter Cassius Clay, the future Muhammad Ali. Congressman and Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (the sensational Giancarlo Esposito) is more slickly conniving in his pursuit of political power, chafing when he feels President Kennedy isn't paying him enough attention.

Against a burgeoning Civil Rights Movement, Bumpy's violent old-dog intrigues have a retro feel, and there's a sense that even if he wins the current war, he could lose the battle for his soul. Still, he's no dummy. When he becomes aware of a forbidden romance between Chin's daughter (Lucy Fry) and a black musician (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), Bumpy advises the young man to get out of town: "Romeo and Juliet isn't a romance."

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In Godfather, there promises to be tragedy enough for all. 

Godfather of Harlem, Series Premiere, Sunday, September 29, 10/9c, Epix (timeslot premiere: Sunday, October 6, 9/8c)