Sunday, September 29, 2019

REVIEW: 'Godfather of Harlem' - Bumpy Returns to Harlem Eager to Reclaim What's His in 'By Whatever Means Necessary'

Epix's Godfather of Harlem - Episode 1.01 "By Whatever Means Necessary"

Bumpy Johnson returns from Alcatraz after an eleven year absence to reunite with his family and reclaim his Harlem territory from Italian mob boss Vincent "Chin" Gigante. He finds an unlikely ally in his old friend Malcolm X.

In 2018, there were 495 scripted shows airing amongst the linear channels and streaming services. The way people are consuming content now is so different than it used to be. It happens according to one's own schedule. As such, there is less necessity to provide ample coverage of each specific episode in any given season from a show. Moreover, it is simply impossible to watch everything. As such, this site is making the move to shorter episodic reviews in order to cover as many shows as possible. With all of that being said, here are my thoughts on the series premiere of Epix's Godfather of Harlem.

"By Whatever Means Necessary" was written by Chris Brancato & Paul Eckstein and directed by John Ridley

This show is the latest entry in a fairly familiar genre of mob stories. It tries to distinguish itself by fundamentally being a story about race and the culture clashes of the 1960s. Bumpy Johnson has long been a notable figure in Harlem. He returns to the neighborhood in 1963 after several years in prison. He returns to a changed neighborhood still looking to exert his influence. He still has a ton of friends who are willing to help him achieve that ambition as well. At the party celebrating his return, everyone is essentially coming up to him to say that the Italians have been taking over territory and money has gotten tight. Bumpy has to make some decisive actions especially when one of his places is hit later that night. Of course, there are some familiar beats along the way with this particular story as well. An associate goes against the direct orders from the boss in the hopes of grabbing some power for themselves. Chin doesn't appear to have a solid hold on his crew because one of his men makes multiple attempts on Bumpy's life. To him, that presents as the simplest solution to the problem. The Italian mob is growing and doesn't need this man coming in to declare all of this as his. Bumpy is a nuisance. And yes, Bumpy does make his presence known at all times. He feels the urgency to do so because this is his neighborhood. This is the place where he gets respect. It's the part of the town where he can be in control of this mob while still being a family man proud to support his wife and children. Of course, he is startled by the terrifying effects drugs have had on the neighborhood as well. The place is full of addicts on the streets high on dope. He understands that this is fundamentally wrong. However, he still wants to work with the various mob families. He wants a cut of the business in this neighborhood. It's the way for him to declare all of this as his. It's the way that business used to work so successfully for him. But again, times are changing. The civil rights movement is starting to form and act up. Bumpy has a history with Malcolm X. Here, they present as allies with services each other needs. Bumpy has the weapons to launch this war while Malcolm has the men. They are beneficial to one another - only up to a certain point though. They understand each other even though Bumpy wants nothing to do with the Nation of Islam. In fact, this is a world polarized by the message Malcolm is delivering. He is given the opportunity over and over again to speak legitimately and passionately about his belief that the black man needs to rise up against his white oppressors. He has his loyal followers. He is providing a service to the local community. It may not be enough. It's enough for Bumpy to entrust him with his daughter who needs help getting clean. Bumpy has a personal connection to the despair in Harlem. He wants to make things better despite that also clashing with his business aspirations. That is a fascinating way to view this familiar mob story. The Italian mob sees Bumpy as the person who can keep an entire ethnicity in line so that no problems will erupt in the future. That's a simplistic view of race. This is a very divided world. Both sides lash out at the idea of races mixing in a romantic context. The fight is coming though. Each side is letting it be known what they stand for. However, Bumpy emerges victorious in his pursuit of what used to be his. He gets exactly that because he has many allies and people willing to exchange favors. He's not above doing some of the bloody work himself. Plus, he has someone at home who he is allowed to be vulnerable with. It's just unclear if the series will eventually evolve into a more engaging story or if it will just sit comfortably within some familiar storytelling tropes. The inclusion of racial perspectives is something that has long been missing in this genre. It may not be enough to sustain a compelling show though - even one with a stellar cast led by Forest Whitaker, Vincent D'Onofrio, Paul Sorvino and Giancarlo Esposito.