The Godfather of Harlem, a series currently on MGM+ and Hulu, is among the best shows on television since The Wire. It’s the story of real-life gangster Bumpy Johnson, played brilliantly by Forrest Whittaker, navigating Harlem in the early sixties (1963-65), between his friend Malcolm X, his sometime ally Congressman Adam Clayton Powell, and the five Italian Mafia families. Nearly all the characters are historical.
Each episode, especially in the first two seasons, is finely crafted with parallel plots between the Mafia families, Bumpy’s family, and Malcolm’s family. The episodes are often centered around historical events, like the 1963 March on Washington, the Kennedy assassination, the Harlem Riots of 1964, the killing of Schwerner, Goodman, and Chaney, Malcolm’s spilt with the Nation of Islam, Che Guevara’s speech at the UN.
Politically, the series is highly sympathetic to Malcolm and pulls no punches in its excoriation of the CIA, the FBI, and the New York Police.
Like Bumpy himself, the story is full of contradictions. Bumpy is portrayed as a crusader for civil rights at the same time he floods Harlem with heroin and later coke. It’s a fascinating account of how the Civil Rights movement played among the criminal gangs, with Chin Gigante killing his daughter’s Black boyfriend (and then regretting it) and forming a partnership with Bumpy to control the drug traffic in Harlem. There is the trope of Bumpy Johnson leading the fight for equal opportunity for Black gangsters. Bumpy is a devoted family man who thinks nothing of slitting the throat anyone in his way of running Harlem. You can tell that Whittaker is enjoying the hell out of portraying this conflicted man.
The third season, which is currently airing live, up to the 8th of 10 episodes, seems a little weaker than the first two, partly because for some reason they had to change the actors who played Malcolm between Nigél Thatchand Jason Alan Carvel. Thatch nailed the role and then some, but it seems as if Carvel has been playing catch up.
The series won several NAACP awards, but the only Emmy it got was for the long collage sequence opening. It’s great, once or twice. But the series is saddled with this intro in all thirty or so of its episodes, with no skip intro button. This is my least favorite part of the series.
People need to see this brilliant drama!