The segregationist ’60s, Harlem history, New York crime family politics and the best television soundtrack of the year are woven together in Epix’s top-tier drama, “Godfather of Harlem.”
The 10-episode series, which debuts Sunday, is based on the true story of infamous crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Forest Whitaker).
Set toward the end of his 30-year reign, we meet the feared and respected kingpin of the famed mostly black Harlem in 1963, just as he returns to the upper Manhattan neighborhood after serving 10 years in Alcatraz on a narcotics charge. And things have changed ... a lot.
Black-owned businesses are struggling, drug use among locals is rampant, and the influx of narcotics is being controlled and supplied by the Genovese crime family. Italian mobster Vincent “The Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) isn’t about to cede his newfound territory to the returning godfather, or cut loose the crooked NYPD cops that he bought out in Bumpy’s absence.
To regain control, Bumpy must navigate the complex realities of a community on the verge of massive change thanks to the civil rights movement and the shifting crime alliances across New York. It’s a new day, and while the aging crime boss wants to see his people rise, his underworld empire depends on the corruption, vice and violence that’s taking them down.
Cocreated by the “Narcos” team of Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, and executive produced by Whitaker, the fast-paced and captivating “Godfather of Harlem” mines the tensions of the era with a character-driven tale that’s as much about the human struggle as it is the goodfellas of New York.
And it doesn’t hurt that in this swank-looking series, midcentury Harlem is just as appealing as Don Draper’s midtown Manhattan in “Mad Men.” The brownstones, the jazz clubs, the upscale apartments, the murderous basements are all brought to life with an authenticity and deep regard for a bygone regionalism that’s now buried under several layers of property booms and busts.
Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch, who also played the civil rights icon in Ava DuVernay’s “Selma”) is a key player in the series, and he serves as the de facto conscience, or perhaps sense of social justice, for Bumpy.
The young civil rights leader is, of course, riling the old guard in his quest to convert black folks to the “true” teachings. Slippery Harlem Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (a terrific, virtually unrecognizable Giancarlo Esposito) has used the pulpit and gospel regularly to propel his interests and curry favor with all the other unethical political factions across New York and the nation.
Shady dealings aside, the people of Harlem are pulled between the two faiths in a tug-of-war that reflects the larger struggle between the teachings of Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr.
The cultural current is one of many that pushes this story in unexpected directions, and infuses it with a depth and context that is often missing in organized-crime “family” dramas.
Whitaker’s phenomenal as the out-of-touch godfather who’s playing catchup in a new world, and plays his character with a quiet yet haunting nuance that is this actor’s specialty. Bumpy’s relationship with mentor Frank Costello (Paul Sorvino) makes for some of the best moments across the early episodes — an Italian mobster who passed down secrets and tips to his black protégé.
Addict Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) is Bumpy’s Achilles’ heel, his weak spot. But she is more than just a junkie, and her character arc is one of the better journeys in a series that’s filled with gradual trajectories and sheer drops.
The soundtrack by Swizz Beatz lends this period tale a modern feel thanks to its mix of old, recognizable tracks, new soul compositions that could have been sung in Harlem’s midcentury clubs, and original hip-hop tunes that connect the past with the present.
This unofficial prequel to “American Gangster” does play with nostalgia from the era — sunken living rooms, starburst clocks, “Wagon Train” on TV, Cassius Clay ring fights as black syndicates, Cuban mobsters, corrupt NYPD cops and the gang from Little Italy scrap it out for power. But its depiction of a racially divided, corrupt and often venal world rings just as true today.
When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)