Friday 17 January 2020

Godfather of Harlem review: Gangster tale strains too hard for epic feel

3 stars

Forest Whitaker Godfather of Harlem
Forest Whitaker Godfather of Harlem

Pat Stacey

Infamous American mobster Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson has been represented on screen a number of times, although mostly in the guise of fictional characters based on him.

In the original blaxploitation classic Shaft, Johnson was the model for Bumpy Jonas (Moses Gunn), the Harlem gang boss who hires Richard Roundtree’s supercool private eye to rescue his daughter who’s been kidnapped by the Italian Mafia.

Laurence Fishburne played another fictionalised version of him called Bumpy Rhodes in The Cotton Club; years later, the same actor also played the real Johnson in the poorly-received Hoodlum, which played so fast and loose with the facts that it might as well have been a work of complete fiction.

The Eddie Murphy-Martin Lawrence prison movie Life featured a Bumpy-like character called Spanky Johnson, played by Rick James.

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Johnson showed up as a minor character, played by an uncredited Clarence Williams III, in American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as another real-life hoodlum, Frank Lucas, who alleged he’d worked under Johnson for 15 years — a claim that was trashed as pure invention by Johnson’s widow.

Bumpy finally takes centre-stage in the violent, flashy new period crime drama Godfather of Harlem, another acquisition by RTE2 which, like the excellent Mr Mercedes, has been bafflingly ignored by other mainstream broadcasters in Europe.

Interestingly, it’s being sold as a prequel to American Gangster, although whether it’s a more truthful account of Johnson’s criminal career than any of the fictional versions we’ve seen up to now, is open to question.

We’re informed before every episode that while the story “is inspired by actual persons and events, certain characters, characterisations, incidents, locations and dialogue were fictionalised or invented for purposes of dramatisation”.

In other words, don’t believe everything you see.

What you can’t quibble with is the authenticity of the lead performance by the excellent Forest Whitaker, who makes Johnson a compelling and convincing presence.

The star, who’s also one of the executive producers, is the best reason for watching the series, which kicked off last night with a double-bill.

The second-best reason is the richly detailed period setting.

It opens in 1963 as Bumpy, having served an 11-year stretch in Alcatraz, returns to Harlem, which is simmering with even more racial tension than usual (be warned: the series doesn’t do any politically correct pussyfooting around the raw, racist language to spare delicate modern sensibilities).

He’s very much still the king of his own community. In a scene that’s very much, well, The Godfather, Bumpy has no sooner arrived at his welcome-home party than everyone, from the local car wash owner to a nun from a Catholic school, is sidling up and asking for favours.

But all is not as it was. Bumpy used to have a stable, if not exactly mutually respectful, working relationship with the Italians; basically, he doesn’t mess with them and they don’t mess with him.

But now somebody is doing just that.

Vicious mobster Vincent Gigante, another real-life criminal played with snarling intensity by Vincent D’Onofrio, has muscled in on his turf. “Things have changed,” an associate tells Bumpy.

“I haven’t,” he snaps, before heading off, shotgun in hand, to confront Gigante, who’s had one of Bumpy’s young “soldiers” kneecapped.

Godfather of Harlem, which is stuffed with real historical figures, including Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch, repeating his role from Selma), tries to be a mash-up of over-familiar gangster clichés and lofty history of the African-American quest for social justice, but ends up overreaching.

It also stumbles over far too many melodramatic subplots, including Bumpy’s attempts to make his drug-addict daughter, whose child he and his wife have secretly adopted as their own, get clean.

It’s diverting, rather than essential, viewing.

Godfather of Harlem (RTE2)

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