'Godfather of Harlem': TV Review

Solid but familiar.
9/29/2019

An all-star cast led by Forest Whitaker fills out Epix's ambitious mob series, but too many big themes weigh it down.

You can't underestimate the allure of a mob story, or the divergent reasons people tune in to them. (Just look at The Sopranos — at its core, it was less about the mob than about lots and lots of other things, but there were plenty of fans who were bored with Tony's existential crisis and just wanted him at the Bing all the time.)

Which is a semi-long way of saying that Epix's latest, Godfather of Harlem — replete with an all-star cast — will get its fair share of viewers even if they have to figure out how to get Epix to watch it. Mob series continue to be made because they are magnets. Unfortunately, Godfather of Harlem tries to have it both ways, like The Sopranos — mob action with a bigger picture — and stumbles badly every time it veers away from the base gangster elements.

Created and written by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein (Narcos), the series mashes up historical and political events to try to tell the larger tale of social justice in the early 1960s for African-Americans — primarily real-life figures like the gangster Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker), Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito), and how their stories intersected with famous New York mobsters like Vincent "Chin" Gigante (Vincent D'Onofrio), Frank Costello (Paul Sorvino), Joe Bonanno (Chazz Palminteri) and others.

It's a huge undertaking, which is probably why the creators post this note before the episodes: "While this story is inspired by actual persons and events, certain characters, characterizations, incidents, locations and dialogue were fictionalized or invented for purposes of dramatization."

Whew. That certainly provides a lot of leeway. "Inspired by" is always more worrisome than "based on," and when you add this kind of wording, it makes you wonder how much of, well, everything, is being contorted.

That said, lots of people will have zero problem with it. Again, mob stories are often about guns, drugs, money, women and turf wars, all violently portrayed, and there's no lack of that on Godfather of Harlem

And that's before you consider the cast. I mean, look at that list. Plus, the series has no end to exceptional actors in more minor roles, like Ilfenesh Hadera (She's Gotta Have It, Billions), Erik LaRay Harvey (Luke Cage, Boardwalk Empire), Elvis Nolasco (American Crime) and countless others. The pilot was directed by John Ridley. Epix, pushing hard and successfully into scripted, very clearly wants to make Godfather of Harlem pop.

And that all-star cast doesn't let the show down — Whitaker is excellent, D'Onofrio's wilder side meshes with Sorvino's quiet one, and Thatch, who has already played Malcolm X before in Selma, is excellent playing off both Whitaker and Esposito.

The first episode finds Bumpy getting out of an 11-year prison sentence at Alcatraz and coming back to a very changed Harlem. It does an excellent job of setting up his relationship with his wife Mayme (Hadera) and establishing how quickly the Italians have pushed into and taken over Harlem. He wants it back, of course, and he and Chin get into it pretty quickly, with Costello trying to moderate things for the rest of the mob families.

It's a promising start, but also deceiving. The first hour, at least, sets a higher bar than what follows, as Godfather of Harlem drops its pretenses and falls into a more predictable pattern of mob clichés very quickly. Again, few people have been able to take the more tired elements of the genre and elevate them, so it's no real crime for the show to fall short in its attempt to be something other, something bigger. 

Perhaps there's too much pressure trying to prop up the sociological elements of race, competing religions and the issues inherent in that pursuit. There's a lot of N-word-dropping throughout Godfather of Harlem, since there's no love lost between the Italians and Harlem's African-American community, with a second-tier love story about Chin's daughter Stella (Lucy Fry) and a black musician, Teddy (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), further exploring the race angle. Meanwhile, Malcolm X and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. get into it about Islam and Christianity, and Bumpy's eldest daughter, Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), is involved in a storyline about her father peddling heroin in the black community.

If all of that wasn't enough, Mayme, who we first see as a smart, powerful force as Bumpy's wife, devolves pretty quickly into a woman willing to toss Elise to the curb so that Elise's daughter, Margaret (Demi Singleton), who thinks Mayme is her real mother, won't find out the truth. It's in those choices — to be soapier than needed, to force the drama — that Godfather of Harlem slips. 

By the end of the third episode, the series has leaned in hard to more soap-box and/or convenient moments to tie these massive storylines into something cohesive, but it's too rushed and manipulative, with the episode's ending looking like a music video. 

At least by then we know what the ceiling looks like for Godfather of Harlem. If it can't be The Sopranos or Boardwalk Empire, it can be something less while still entertaining those who like mob stories. 

Created and written by: Chris Brancato, Paul Eckstein
Directed by: John Ridley
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Vincent D'Onofrio, Giancarlo Esposito, Nigel Thatch, Ilfenesh Hadera, Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Paul Sorvino, Chazz Palminteri, Lucy Fry, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Rafi Gavron, Katherine Narducci
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET (Epix)