Forest Whitaker is a decorated leading man whose elegance of approach and unusual acting choices would seem to potentially play even better on the small screen. After stints on various network shows, Whitaker finally gets his showcase in “Godfather of Harlem.” It is a new Epix hourlong series set in the political ferment of the early 1960s. Through his recessive and glamour, he provides the strongest case for the series.
In March 1963, Harlem crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Forest Whitaker) is released from Alcatraz and returns to New York to reclaim his turf — 110th Street north to 160th. But in his years away, the Genovese crime family has moved in, and Bumpy has to maneuver past Vincent “Chin” Gigante and artifice some other crime bosses. The names are Frank Costello and Joseph Bonanno.
Bumpy’s wife, Mayme wants him to pull out of the ground wars, but they keep pulling him back in. Meanwhile, Rep. Adam Clayton Powell and Malcolm X, are engaged in their turf battle for the hearts and minds of Harlem.
“Godfather of Harlem” has a strong popcorn element. Its main motive is to acquire an extreme ability to watch. The role is impressively fit for Whitaker, who, as the career criminal Bumpy Johnson, recently freed from prison, returns to Harlem to rule his domain with quiet, sparkling power. Bumpy is a don with a higher motive.
The most impressive aspect of the show may be its incorporation of the black politics of the era. Bumpy always finds himself at the heart of the action. He combines softness and stillness with real, explicit anger at the state of his world. Whitaker makes for an intense vessel for the critics.