Review of “Godfather of Harlem”

Godfather of Harlem Season 1 Episode 101: By Whatever Means Necessary

Godfather of Harlem (2019) is a television prequel to the events of American Gangster (2007). The series follows a fictionalized version of Harlem racketeer Bumpy Johnson (Forrest Whitaker) as he returns from an 11 year stint in Alcatraz as the result of a heroin deal gone bad. He refused to inform and served his full sentence. Mayme Hatcher (Ilfenesh Hadera) is Whitaker’s wife, a conflicted character who hates junkies and dope (including Johnson’s daughter) while living a luxurious lifestyle as a consequence of her husband’s activities selling it. The series puts Johnson and Hatcher in contact, contradiction, and unity with stalwarts of the early 1960s era in Harlem such as Adam Clayton Powell (Giancarlo Esposito) and Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch, reprising his role from Selma). We see Johnson team up with Malcolm X to run Italian dope pushers led by mobster Vicente “The Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio) out of the community that he dominated before his prison stint. The racial contradiction cuts thick as we see an Italian mobster who routinely refers to Black people with slurs and tolerates Bumpy for business purposes only (take note, wannabe Black mobsters and capitalists) claiming to “run Harlem” and slinging dope to it Black population. Of course, Bumpy also aspires to get back into the dope trade, but also is cast with an appearance of a social consciousness. His own daughter, Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy) is an addict. He sees addicts wandering around the streets, increasingly so as the Italians flood Harlem with heroin. This isn’t a simple mob war, it’s a racial struggle, but we have to observe the irony of a Black man wanting to run the Italians out of Harlem so he can take their place stringing out his own people. Johnson tells Gigante that “We will be at war until either me, or you, is dead.” Gigante replies in the affirmative. This is an adequate, two sentence summary of the struggle between the settler nation and the Afrikan one in this continent since the first Afrikans got off the boats with the Spanish, as slaves. Whitaker’s Johnson expresses a concern for his community and nation and, in an lumpen way, struggles for self determination for Harlem. For all his merits, however, Johnson is hamstrung by his class, which is lumpen/bourgeois. At the end of the day and all moral pretensions aside, his role is to make money through anti-people activity such as gambling rackets and heroin dealing by the kilo. He’s still an easy character to root for as he struggles against racist Italian mobsters, though. It’s also a reminder of the older generation of lumpen lords that the masses actually didn’t mind having around, because they tried to at least cultivate a decent image for themselves. People in Harlem to this day still speak positively of people like Johnson. 

Esposito plays the best Adam Clayton Powell I’ve seen to date. He captures the reckless abandon, blatant amorality, and opportunism so characteristic of the third rail of the political leadership of the New Afrikan nation, the lumpen-political class/preacher. He’s routinely seen wheeling and dealing and wheedling money out of DC to keep himself in office, and is slick and smooth towards his constituents, cavalier/condescending towards Johnson, while throwing constant conniption fits at his settler counterparts in Washington. This shows the limitations of this class – they may have some pretty big crumbs courtesy of their handlers in Washington but ultimately are contrary to the liberation project. They serve a parasitic purpose. Powell’s routine sexual escapades and spending of taxpayers’ money on junkets in Paris is also not missed. Powell spends most of his time behind his desk at his office whining, wasting and pontificating, while Malcolm X is routinely out in the streets representing the third rail of the New Afrikan political leadership, the revolutionary nationalist/revolutionary clergy. He administers a program to help addicts kick the habit, is the first to align with Johnson to kick the Italians out of Harlem, and routinely serves as a guide/spiritual advisor. He touches Johnson to his soul when he calls him a “house slave for the Mafia”, and routinely pushes him on his amorality, selfishness (including towards his own daughter), and hypocrisy. 

Obviously, this is a lumpen mob movie, so it’s going to have more than its fair share of violence, dead bodies, and other such staples. I also am confused at the incongruous relationship between a Harlem based musician and the daughter of Vincent Gigante, which affords Bumpy an opportune moment to send a message and get some of his turf back. I’m interested in seeing how this series’ narrative develops. It’s refreshing in that we can watch Bumpy Johnson, a street legend, in the flesh outwitting racist colonizers and the fascist police side by side with Malcolm X. It has immense nostalgia value. The Harlem that it depicts is slowly being gentrified and fucked up by colonial incursion. I recommend giving at least the first episode a chance.