In case you missed it, a new crime drama series, Godfather of Harlem, with Forest Whitaker in the lead, premiered in the United States on September 29th and is currently showing Tuesdays on Showmax.
Based on a true story, the show centres around crime boss Bumpy Johnson and opens with Bumpy’s release from the notorious Alcatraz prison after being locked up for 10 years.
Following his release, Bumpy quickly re-settles into his role as drug boss. Top on his agenda is regaining control of Harlem from the Italian mob, specifically the Genovese crime family, with the help of Malcolm X (played by Nigel Thatch, who reprised his role from Selma).
Godfather of Harlem, which also stars Vincent D’Onofrio (Vic Hoskins in Jurassic World) and Giancarlo Esposito (Gus in Breaking Bad), opened to largely positive reviews, with a 95% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. In addition, the show’s soundtrack, which was curated by Grammy-award-winning rap producer Swizz Beatz, has attracted critical acclaim, with The Los Angeles Times describing it as “the television soundtrack of the year”.
If these indications are anything to go by, Godfather of Harlem has a great run ahead of it. Here are 5 reasons why you should have the show on your binge list.
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. Known for his quick temper, Bumpy and his siblings were sent to Harlem from Charleston, South Carolina at age 10 for safety after his older brother was accused of the murder of a white man, according to Biography dot com. He would later cross paths with William “Bub” Hewlett as a teenager. Through Hewlett, Johnson became a highly regarded bodyguard for high-rolling illegal gamblers in Harlem, and an inductee to a life of crime.
Bumpy Johnson has been portrayed in several movies, including American Gangster, Ridley Scott’s Oscar-nominated film about Frank Lucas, Bumpy’s protege. He 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).
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. 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. So it comes as a surprise to realise he’s never been the lead in a TV series, despite impressive smaller roles in hit shows like Empire, Criminal Minds, The Shield, and E.R.
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.”
4. Swizz Beatz curated “the best television soundtrack of the year”
According to The Los Angeles Times, 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 Swizz 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.”