Godfather of Harlem (3 stars)

Godfather of Harlem

Big guns and razor gangs come out to play in fine historical crime drama

To those who insist that the mob drama has surely run its course, Godfather Of Harlem offers a fresh perspective. Forest Whitaker stars as Ellsworth 'Bumpy' Johnson, a razor-happy crime boss in early 1960s New York who has just been released after a decade in Alcatraz. Determined to reclaim his place in the underworld firmament, his authority may be secure within the black community (he has Malcolm X for a pal and confidante) but his problems lie with the Italian-American constituency that has made serious gains on his patch.

Although the programme's opening credits cite that despite its pantheon of real people being portrayed, events and dialogue have largely been fictionalised, Godfather Of Harlem wields its truths with a broader brush. So, Johnson's struggles rage within an America at war with itself, its civil rights movement pitched against a social conservatism which exists not only within the white powerbrokers. A series of figures pop up to challenge this status quo, such as the young Cassius Clay, balking at mob demands for him to throw a fight, his eyes on the bigger prize further down the line as Islam convert Muhammad Ali.

Whitaker is an imposing presence as a man who will smile in your face one minute, then slash at your flesh the next, but some of the narrative rather overplays its hand and leads to incidents that seem barely credible. One hood nips away from his date in a club to commit a murder for which he is unbelievably in the right place at the right time, returning barely flustered with no blood on his shirt or sweat on his brow, a ready-made if feeble excuse prepared for his girl. She happens to be the daughter of a notorious Italian gangster (Vincent Gigante played with his trademark menace by Vincent D'Onofrio), so you'd think her BS radar would be on permanent high alert; yet she goes simperingly along with her beau's cobblers. Moments like those, and there a few, leave the drama's plausibility in tatters.

Still, its impressive cast keeps most flaws at bay, with excellent turns from Nigél Thatch as Malcolm X, Giancarlo Esposito as influential pastor Adam Clayton Powell Jr, Ilfenesh Hadera as Bumpy's loyal wife Mayme, and mob drama veteran Paul Sorvino as Frank Costello. Godfather Of Harlem, despite its occasional clumsy move, proves once more that TV is able to roll out the big guns in its war against cinema.

Watch on Starzplay, Sundays; episode one available now.

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