In the early 1960s, Bumpy returns from Alcatraz to find the neighbourhood he once ruled in a shambles. With the streets controlled by Vincent ‘Chin’ Gigante (Emmy nominee Vincent D’Onofrio from Daredevil and Jurassic World) and the Italian mob, Bumpy takes on the Genovese crime family to regain control.
During the brutal battle, he forms an unlikely alliance with radical preacher Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch, reprising his role from Selma), who wants to get heroin off the streets of Harlem. Godfather of Harlem, streaming now on Showmax and on DStv Now, with new episodes landing every Monday at 21:30, is the remarkable true story of how the criminal underworld and the civil rights movement collided during one of the most tumultuous times in American history.
Here are five reasons to add it to your watchlist immediately:
1. It’s based on a true story
The Guardian called Bumpy Johnson “the most feared criminal in Harlem… between 1930 and 1968.”
Godfather of Harlem is set towards the end of this Robin Hood figure’s reign: it deserves a prequel about Bumpy’s war with the more famous Dutch Schultz (played by Dustin Hoffman in Billy Bathgate), and it already unofficially has a sequel in American Gangster, Ridley Scott’s Oscar-nominated film about Frank Lucas, Bumpy’s protege.
Bumpy appears in the opening scene of American Gangster; was fictionalised as Bumpy Jonas in the original Shaft; and has been played by Oscar nominee Laurence Fishburne, twice (in The Cotton Club and then in Hoodlum).
As if Bumpy’s story wasn’t already an obvious fit for its own series, he crossed paths with civil rights activist Malcolm X; Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Emmy nominee Giancarlo Esposito from Breaking Bad), the first African-American to represent New York in the US House of Representatives; and Cassius Clay (Deric Augustine from Cloak & Dagger) before he became known as Muhammad Ali.
2. It’s from the creators of Narcos
Godfather of Harlem is written and executive produced by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, co-creators of Narcos, IMDb’s top ranked gangland show of the last decade. Nominated for Golden Globes, Emmys, BAFTAs and People’s Choice Awards, Narcos is currently #55 on IMDb’s list of the top-rated TV of all time – only The Wire and The Sopranos are higher ranked within its genre.
As if that wasn’t enough to get us excited, John Ridley, who won an Oscar for his screenplay for 12 Years A Slave and was nominated for three Emmys as creator of American Crime, directs the pilot and is an executive producer.
3. It stars Forest Whitaker in his first TV lead
There’s not much Forest Whitaker hasn’t achieved yet. He won an Oscar, a Golden Globe and a BAFTA as Idi Amin in The Last King Of Scotland; took home Best Actor at Cannes as Charlie Parker in Bird; and had memorable roles in many of the biggest films in recent history, from Star Wars: Rogue One to Black Panther.
Forest “… plays his character with a quiet yet haunting nuance that is this actor’s specialty.” – The Los Angeles Times
It’s about time too: as Variety put it, “Forest Whitaker is the sort of star seemingly built to make the leap to television: He’s a decorated leading man whose subtlety of approach and whose commitment to delicate, unusual acting choices would seem to potentially play even better on the small screen.”
He doesn’t disappoint. To quote The Los Angeles Times, in Godfather of Harlem Forest is “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.”
He’s not the only acting drawcard either: in addition to Forest, Vincent D’Onofrio and Nigél Thatch, the impressive cast also includes Oscar nominee Chazz Palminteri (The Usual Suspects); Screen Actors Guild nominees Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas), Luis Guzmán (Traffic) and Erik LaRay Harvey (Boardwalk Empire); and Critics Choice nominee Elvis Nolasco (American Crime), not to mention Ilfenesh Hadera (She’s Gotta Have It, Billions) as Bumpy’s wife Mayme.
4. Swiss Beatz curated “the best television soundtrack of the year”
According to The Los Angeles Times, The Godfather of Harlem has “the best television soundtrack of the year.” A mix of period funk and soul; new compositions that could have been sung at the Apollo in the 60s; and new hip hop tunes that connect the past to the present, the soundtrack was curated by Swiss Beatz (aka Alicia Keys’ husband, who Kanye West once called “the best rap producer of all time” on Twitter.)
The Godfather of Harlem soundtrack, featuring the likes of DMX, Rick Ross, Jidena, A$SAP Ferg, Wale, and French Montana, already has over 400k monthly listeners on Spotify alone.
5. Critics love it
Godfather of Harlem currently has a 95% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the critics consensus is that the series is “as sharply dressed as it is smartly written.” Forbes is already debating Emmys for Forest as Bumpy and Nigél as Malcolm X, while Time Magazine called it “the rare gangster epic we haven’t seen before.”