The Godfather of Harlem, Bumpy Johnson, wielded close to absolute power in the Manhattan neighborhood. But, as a character in “Godfather of Harlem” reminds us, “below 110th Street he’s just another negro.”
This tension between the nominal and the real power – between the facade and the intimate feeling – runs through this HBO series created by Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, the men behind “Narcos”.
The action begins in 1963, when Johnson is released from Alcatraz after serving a ten-year sentence and returns to a changed Harlem where the Italian clans dominate the distribution of heroin, which is ravaging the streets. Inspired by the real character, the authors have taken as much poetic license as they’ve wished – as was the case with “Narcos” – in order to intertwine their story about mafias with the civil rights struggle. Johnson is just one of the vertices of the triangle, where Malcolm X and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell are the other two. The former is the man behind the Nation of Islam, while the latter is the exact opposite: a Baptist ruler who tries to change things from within, meanwhile he wears an ever present smile (even if it is hypocritical).
The result is a well packaged series: Forest Whitaker shines in the role of the violent gangster who’s unaccepting of historical change or decline. Vincent D’Onofrio plays his major rival and together with Paul Sorvino who make a great couple as representatives of the Italian mob. The soundtrack includes an interesting mix of tunes from the era mixed in with some bespoke hip hop created especially for the occasion and the series efforts to create its own musical tone thereby generating a similar effect to that of “Peaky Blinders” is noted, where classical setting plays opposition to the contemporary soundtrack.
Had they chosen between historical series or characters would have helped to stay better focused
In spite of its ambitions, or more probably in fact, precisely due to the excess of ambition, the series doesn’t reach the same level of “Sopranos”, “Boardwalk Empire” or even the first two seasons of “Narcos”. The creators have tried to combine too many elements: mafias, racial tensions, family, politics, religion, a relationship reminiscent of Romeo and Juliet, outbreaks of violence, moments of intimacy and introspection… an overload of ingredients to be able to satisfactorily resolve in just ten episodes. Had they chosen between historical series or characters would have helped to stay better focused. Despite this, this is still extremely well-packaged entertainment, although below 110th Street, it’s just another series.