“Godfather of Harlem” is Epix’s new prestige drama starring Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as Bumpy Johnson, the real-life mob boss who rubbed elbows with notable figures like Lucky Luciano and Malcolm X. The series, set in the early 1960s, starts with Bumpy returning to Harlem after a 10-year stint in prison, finding his community in conflict with the local Italian mob, led by the Genovese crime family. There are elements of past popular gangster series like “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire,” including a sprawling cast, acclaimed directors, pulpy action sequences, and moral gray areas. Considering how much awards bodies love such shows, there is a stronger chance for “Godfather of Harlem” than one might think.
The gangster epic has earned positive reviews from critics, mainly for the cast. Whitaker is assisted by Vincent D’Onofrio as Italian boss Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, Giancarlo Esposito as charismatic politician Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Lucy Fry as a pair of young lovers, Nigél Thatch as Malcolm X and Ilfenesh Hadera as Bumpy’s wife, Mayme. Not unlike the aforementioned HBO gangster dramas, the ensemble is compulsively watchable, especially when bouncing off each other.
But there is an added layer to “Harlem” that could help it stand out in the award season to come. While television has tried desperately to repeat the sensation that was “The Sopranos,” its descendants haven’t stood out enough to gain much acclaim with awards bodies. “Godfather of Harlem” is doing something different in focusing on a predominantly black ensemble of characters. While this does not automatically guarantee attention, considering how many awards organizations have a majority of white voters, “Godfather of Harlem” is noteworthy in how it portrays a wide range of issues relevant to the local Harlem community in the early ’60s. It comments on Christianity vs. Islam, interracial relationships, America’s broken social systems, and how to best proceed at a time of political revolution. These are topics not seen much in shows like this, and viewers may find themselves reflecting on how things were then and how things have or have not changed now.
Award shows like the Emmys, Golden Globes and SAG Awards have really taken to mob dramas like “Godfather of Harlem” over the years, most notably to “The Sopranos.” This decade, “Boardwalk Empire” certainly made its mark, winning two SAG Awards for drama ensemble, while shows like “Narcos” and “Sons of Anarchy” have shown up at the Golden Globes. The Globes may just be the best starting point for “Godfather of Harlem,” not only because of the success of past crime dramas but because of their love of new shows on newer networks. Not only that, Epix has already earned Golden Globe recognition before, with Nick Nolte earning a Best Comedy Actor nomination in 2016 for “Graves.” A buzzy prestige show like “Godfather of Harlem” could be right on the HFPA’s radar, especially with an Academy Award-winning actor at its center.
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