Forget Vito and Michael Corleone. Harlem had a godfather, too, and unlike the Corleones, he was real. Godfather of Harlem, which is a prequel to Denzel Washington's 2007 movie American Gangster, tells the story of crime boss Ellsworth 'Bumpy' Johnson (Forest Whitaker) in 1960s America.
The Epix original series currently has a solid 95% score on Rotten Tomatoes. It's a good and pretty straightforward show. You won't have to study it like a Quantum Physics textbook to comprehend the proceedings. Neither will you find yourself yawning and dozing off midway.
It also has a buffet of very compelling characters and we've singled out the ten best ones.
10 Vincent "The Chin" Gigante
Italian-American mobster Vincent "The Chin" Gigante is Bumpy's main foe in Godfather Of Harlem. The two hate each other so much that you end up wishing they'd just settle it cowboy-style. I'll stand here. You'll stand there, then we'll see who is able to pull the trigger faster. Cool? Cool. Let's do it.
Sadly, they can't kill each other even if they wanted to because they both have protection from other crime families. The best they can do is look at each other angrily and throw a couple of insults. How disappointing. But that doesn't mean they won't at least try to take each other out later on.
Gangsters with nicknames always seem to be more ruthless than the rest. Remember Virgil "The Turk" Solozzo in The Godfather? Gigante is no different. And Bumpy—who gets his nickname because of the bump at the back of his neck,—at one point is seen slicing a competitor's neck and leaving it there for whoever may find it. Jesus! You're going to hell Bumpy. Or are you already there?
9 Joe Bonanno
Joe—the boss of the Bonanno crime family—is played by the phenomenal Chazz Palminteri. He also happens to be a good friend of Bumpy. It almost feels like Chazz was born to play mafia bosses. With his black overcoats, gloves, and Sicilian accent, he never fails to look the part.
It's also refreshing to keep hearing him referring to Mr.Johnson as Bompy instead of Bumpy. "Rumor has it that the mafia already murdered the letter U. Its body is at the bottom of the river now. RIP letter U. You were replaced by letter O.
The best performance of Palminteri's career was in 1993's A Bronx Tale but in his bit-part role in Godfather of Harlem, he's equally phenomenal. Dear Emmys, reserve a trophy for Chazz, will you? Or should we say keep one for him, or else...
8 Muhammad Ali/Cassius Clay
Yes, Cassius Clay aka Ali The Champ aka Mr. Too Many Names is here too. And he didn't forget to pack his ego. Everyone is in this series. I wouldn't be surprised if Spider-Man showed up too.
In the show, a young Mohammed Ali comes to Harlem to prepare for a mega-fight. His relationship with Malcolm X and his association with the Nation of Islam is explored in detail. He'd like to keep his religion a secret because a Black Muslim man can't be allowed to prosper as a boxer in 1960s America. However, the likes of Gigante are keen on using this to blackmail him to force him to lose in order for their gambling business to flourish.
7 Teddy Greene
If you hear him singing without looking at him, you might think its Usher. Teddy Greene is an aspiring black musician who also happens to be dating Gigante's daughter Stella. This isn't good for him because Gigante's henchman Nunzi likes Stella too.
Ooh! poor Teddy. What's he going to do? Love or bullets? Which will win? Surprisingly, he does quite well. The scene where he stands up against Nunzi and hits him in the face with a gun should be shown to every kid who is being tormented by a bully. Or maybe not.
Even Antony and Cleopatra would be jealous of Stella's feelings of affection. Don' even mention Romeo and Juliet. They'd throw tantrums. Stella is Gigante's daughter and she's madly in love with Teddy Greene. Due to the intense racism surrounding them, this is a forbidden relationship at this time and place.
Daddy or boyfriend? This might be a tough decision for many but its an easy one for Stella. She is so keen on being with Greene that she betrays her father and befriends Bumpy in order to find a way to preserve her relationship. Anything for love.
How ironic is it for a drug lord to have a drug-addicted daughter? That's the problem Bumpy has. His daughter Elise cannot function without heroin and as a result, she lives on the streets.
Luckily, she ends up getting close to Malcolm X who enrolls her into a detox program. She eventually joins the Nation of Islam and is hired by its leader Elijah Mohammed to spy on the fast-rising Malcolm. She also has a daughter who thinks Bumpy is her father and Bumpy's wife Mayme is her mother. My goodness! The writers on this show are working overtime.
4 Congressman Powell
Ever seen a congressman who is also a reverend and also happens to drink, smoke and read pornographic magazines? That's Adam Clayton Powell Jr. for you. Interestingly, he's quite smart too. He knows how to use every major character for his own interest.
Guess who plays him? Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul's Giancarlo Esposito (Gustavo Fring), Like Gustavo, Powell looks likely to get blown up any minute by the mobsters he is so keen on exposing. Back in 1992, Esposito also played Thomas Haggan in Malcolm X. Haggan of the assassins who killed Malcolm. It's another case of an actor playing different characters in the same universe.
3 Mayme Johnson
She's a dedicated wife who waited for Bumpy while he was incarcerated. She also knows he's cheating but she isn't planning on leaving him. Her heart-to-heart conversations with Bumpy are something to look forward to since she is the only person who reprimands him without consequences.
IIfenesh Hadera, the actress who plays Mayme, said she keenly studied the book by Bumpy's real-life wife Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson. Through her acting, you can tell how deeply she is dedicated to the role.
2 Bumpy Johnson
Just like The Butler and The Last King of Scotland, this is a role that might make Whitaker get plenty of awards. He just fits into the role like Bruce Wayne's body fits the Bat Suit.
In 1960s America, most crime bosses were Italian, so Bumpy stood out as the only black one. In the series, he is a wise gangster who makes friends with most of the Italians, except Gigante. He also surrounds himself with key people like celebrities and congressmen in order to look clean. He also has Malcolm X as a close ally, so that helps him masquerade as a champion of civil rights.
1 Malcolm X
It almost feels like this series should have been called Malcolm and Bumpy. It is as much Malcolm's story as it is Bumpy's. Most of the key details in Malcolm's life are captured. What makes the character of Malcolm so luminous is the actor who plays him.
Nigel Thatch is very convincing as the controversial civil rights leader. He also looks very much like him. It's the second time he has played the role, having first appeared as Malcolm in Selma.
The civil rights activist heavily relied on militant policies, so it wasn't surprising to find out that he was very close to one of New York's most feared crime bosses. He gives us his most memorable quote when he tells Bumpy, "You have the guns? I have an army."
Goodness Malcolm. Are you in Afghanistan or America?