Based on the real-life gangster Bumpy Johnson, Godfather of Harlem opens with a long aerial shot of Alcatraz Prison. It cuts tightly to a cell door sliding open, and Forest Whitaker’s expressionless face slides into view, filling the entire screen. This is what you call television love at first sight.
Whitaker is one of the most accomplished and endearing actors of our time, and this is his first lead role in a TV series, as Bumpy Johnson. (He plays a recurring supporting character in Empire.) Released from prison in 1963, Bumpy returns to Harlem to pick up the pieces of his life, but runs into trouble with the Italian mob who moved in on his turf while he was inside.
Black civil rights form a major part of the series, which is streaming with new weekly episodes on Showmax and DStv Now, with the inclusion of a Malcolm X storyline (the two did actually know each other from decades earlier; Bumpy offered X protection) alongside that of Representative Adam Clayton Powell (played by Giancarlo Esposito from Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul). Malcolm X is played by Nigél Thatch, reprising his role from Selma.
The mob is represented by mafia stalwarts Paul Sorvino (Goodfellas), Chazz Palminteri (The Usual Suspects), and Vincent D’Onofrio (Law & Order: Criminal Intent). The latter plays Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, whose daughter has taken up with a young black man who happens to be a singer – which leads neatly into the music of the show.
The soundtrack was curated by New York native Swizz Beatz, who hails from the Bronx. According to Trent Fitzgerald at XXL, Swizz wanted to “deliver a global sound that fit sonically with the show’s historical period yet feel contemporary. While working on the series, the 41-year-old executive music producer felt a connection with Johnson’s story and the overall political theme of the show.”
As such, we find a mixture of genres and styles, from modern beats and rap along with classics of the time from the likes of Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and The Jackson 5. The theme song Just In Case is performed by Swizz Beatz, Rick Ross & DMX; some songs are available on various streaming platforms, and the full album is on Spotify.
“It’s a neat musical trick that joins the past with the present, aligning history with an emotional undercurrent that resonates in the new millennium,” says Randee Dawn on the Grammy Awards website. Foreshadowing? Not unlikely; Beatz (born Kasseem Dean) is already a Grammy-winning producer who has worked as a producer on Empire and has been contributing songs to soundtracks for 20 years.
“The whole concept was to make the music have the heritage of the time period, but also give it a ‘today’ handshake,” Beatz tells the Recording Academy. “It’s like meeting heritage with today.”
“Music is an essential element of the African-American experience in this country,” says Brancato.
Musical soundtracks bring so much to the table, and have become increasingly important in film and television production. Heck, just ask Quentin Tarantino, or watch True Blood (on Showmax). Part of the thinking behind the Godfather of Harlem soundtrack is that it helps provide an entry point for younger viewers who might not immediately turn to a historical series.
“You want to open the tent to the widest possible audience,” says executive producer Chris Brancato. “A contemporary soundtrack can attract a younger audience – and an audience around the world.”
And just by the way, if you’re still looking for credentials, showrunners Brancato and Paul Eckstein are co-creators of Narcos, IMDb’s top ranked gangland show of the last decade.
“Music is an essential element of the African-American experience in this country,” says Brancato. “Whether it’s slave anthems or gospel music or church-inspired music — all of it plays a part in giving people hope, sustenance and aspiration to become part of the fabric that is America.”
Trivia: What’s up with Whitaker’s eye? Find out here. (It’s a hereditary condition called Ptosis, FYI.)