Crimezine checks out the Godfather of Harlem

Posted: September 10, 2021 in Uncategorized

by Tony Bulmer

Tony Bulmer checks out the Godfather of Harlem

Retrotastic crime shenanigans in New York City, who can resist them, Crimeziners? The concept is well-turned soil let’s face it. Clearly there are more NYC mafia shows than shallow graves in Jersey and Godfather of Harlem is just the latest. There is an angle, of course—and the angle is African American. for GOH is based on real-life 50s gangster Bumpy Johnson [Forest Whitaker]. In real life, Johnson was a crime lieutenant for Harlem numbers queen, Madam Stephanie St. Clair. In the 30s his gang went to war with full-fledged psycopath and bootlegging legend Arty “Dutch” Schultz. By the fifties Johnson was a big name in the Harlem heroin trade, an early inspiration for 70s crime boss Frank [American Gangster] Lucas. Forest Whitaker is inspired and ruthless choice for the role. With his unhinged stare and a cut throat razor he slashes necks, battles the five families and corrupts city big-wigs in short order.

Naturally, the shadow of the Soprano’s looms large, and GOH of Harlem does an admirable job of answering its legacy. The show focuses on a uniquely African American point of view which results in more N-words than a gangster rap album. But this fresh look at crime in NYC offers up many wonderful cameos, including cameo roles for Muhammad Ali and the wonderful Nigel Thatch as Malcom X. [a man who so resembles the Islamic firebrand, it is almost frightening. Then there is Breaking Bad star, Giancarlo Esposito, as morally compromised congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. in what must surely be another award-winning cameo for the actor.

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 1950s and early 60s. Unless you are a serious student of American crime history it is hard to know where fact ends and fiction begins. The show states from the very outset that it is inspired by real events. “Inspired” by is a charming way of saying what you are about to see is a pack of lies from start to finish. The roles of Frank Costello (Paul Sorvino), Joe Bonanno (Chazz Palminteri and their relationships with both Johnson and Gigante are examples of such divergent realities. To the casual viewer this might not be a problem, however dedicated Crimeziners may find the twisted veracity of the show, somewhat irksome.

No matter. Vincent D’Onofrio, is marvelously nasty throughout as mafia overlord, lousy father and duplicitous nutcase, Vincent “Chin” Gigante. When Vinnie is raging, front and center, quibbles about reality are quickly forgotten. The thinly disguised Sopranoisms occuring within Gigante’s crew and family are likewise carried away by the sheer pace of events. D’Onofrio Develops a nasty case of character development in season 2. An affliction that infects much of the cast. But we must forgive him that, he is after all Sean Penn’s real-life father in law. 

Created and written by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein [Narcos]), GOH mashes up historical and political events to try to tell the larger tale of social justice in the early 1950s and early 60s for African-Americans. The plot centers around the misty-eyed pursuit of doojie [heroin]. One assumes that while the primetime staples of gun porn, crime porn, money porn, and porn porn are all accepted facets of American prime time, any mention of heroin is still taboo. Hence the rather coy synonym. It is a good job the show has a redemptive conscience to counterbalance the horror. Daughter, reformed junkie and child of Islam, Elise shows us fist hand that the only thing worse than being hooked on heroin, is being hooked on daddies heroin. If we are prepared to put aside the poisonous reiteration that dealing doojie is the passport to east money, Godfather of Harlem really is the crime show of the moment, roll on season three says Crimezine.

Catch Godfather of Harlem on Epix

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