The Godfather of Harlem, Bumpy Johnson, Is An Enigma
The highly acclaimed small screen biopic, “Godfather of Harlem,” will premiere its third season on Epix Cable Network, Sunday, January 15th, 2023, at 9 pm EST/8 Central. The 21st episode in the series is an historically inspired saga chronicling the exploits of Harlem kingpin, Ellsworth Raymond “Bumpy” Johnson, who with his Italian mafia partners controlled illegal business in uptown Manhattan for nearly 40 years.
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This story is compelling, checking all the boxes of Hollywood’s epic big screen successes, impeccable storytelling, imaginative writing, masterful acting, and improvised narratives cleverly woven into the historically fact-based record.
The outstanding performances delivered by an ensemble who are masters of their craft provide a caliber of entertainment that is very engaging. These performers’ acumen brings legendary characters to life with visceral intensity and passion; dramatized, but not inconsistent with historic facts.
The narrative picks up when Bumpy Johnson returns to Harlem after more than a decade in Alcatraz. The neighborhood was hardly recognizable. Long stretches in solitary confinement, a dark, dank cell (9 feet by 5 feet by 7 feet), for months on end, had warped his perception of space.
Bumpy’s former unbridled authority over the neighborhood’s illegal rackets had been taken over by his former Italian partners. Their previous arrangement including resuming his share would not happen without the fight Johnson was fully prepared to wage.
After all, Bumpy Johnson had first earned the mafia’s respect prior to his last incarceration by winning a three-year turf battle with legendary Jewish gangster, Arthur “Dutch Schultz” Flegenheimer, who had attempted to muscle control of the Harlem “numbers” game, an illicit African American street lottery.
History confirms that Bumpy’s defeat of ‘The Dutchman’ resulted when he made a deal with then Italian mob chief, Charles “Lucky” Luciano, who assassinated Schultz and partnered with Johnson to end the war for a reasonable cut of Harlem’s bookmaking and drug businesses. In exchange, Luciano provided Bumpy protection from police and rivals allowing him to operate their nefarious partnership unrestrained.
Forest Whitaker, executive producer, also featured in the lead role as Bumpy Johnson, portrays the enigmatic protagonist/anti-hero playing opposite Vincent D’Onofrio as Vincent “The Chin” Gigante, his murderous archenemy and one of the heads the Five Families, the ruling national Italian mafia syndicate based in New York City. Whitaker delivers a flawless portrayal as Johnson.
As Bumpy Johnson’s nemesis in perpetual combat, D’Onofrio, as Chin Gigante, delivers a stunningly realistic character portrayal, channeling a stellar theatrical iteration of the real-life maniacal mobster. Vince D’Onofrio’s extensive acting credits include his debut major motion picture, Full Metal Jacket (1987), where he portrayed the iconic Private Leonard ‘Gomer Pyle’ Lawrence, who was eventually driven to madness from his Marine Corp experience and unceremoniously executed his perpetual tormentor, Gunnery Sgt. Hartman (Ronald Lee Ermey) before turning his M16 rifle on himself.
The Harlem Godfather, a poetry writer who doubled as a vicious, unrestrained gang enforcer was introduced in season one, episode one as he departed Alcatraz prison en route to Harlem after completing a nearly 11-year heroin rap as the fall guy for his mafia partners.
For History buffs, Godfather of Harlem’s unsuspecting reveal of the powerful, personal relationships Bumpy Johnson enjoys is a fascinating glimpse into historically significant, publicly respected figures who brazenly exchanged favors with the heroin kingpin, two of whom were among Johnson’s triumvirate of power rooted in Harlem neighborhoods.
His two closest community allies were men who wielded considerable clout. The Nation of Islam’s national representative, Malcom X (Nigel Thatch), second behind founder Elijah Muhammad of their 500,000-person organization, was a staunch Bumpy Johnson ally.
Malcom credits Bumpy with his move toward Islam because Bumpy advised him he didn’t have the makings of a successful career gangster. Johnson was X’s legit patron, providing him round-the-clock professional bodyguards when death threats from within his masjid were confirmed. Two weeks after Minister Malcom suspended Bumpy’s security detail, for moral reasons, he was assassinated.
Thatch’s depiction of Malcom X is uncanny. Not only is he a facial carbon copy, his stature, demeanor, vocal tone, and inflexion, are near pitch perfect. However, Thatch will not return for season 3, replaced by Jason Alan Carvell, an alum of NCIS: New Orleans.
Rev. Dr. Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr (Giancarlo Esposito), Bumpy Johnson’s second real-life powerful Harlem compatriot, was New York State’s first African American U.S. Representative, elected from that state in 1944. He would go on to gain the eventual chairmanship of the powerful House Ways & Means Committee.
Powell, scion of wealthy Harlem minister, Adam Clayton Powell Sr, pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church, the largest African American Christian congregation in America of that era, assumed the reigns of the 10,000-member church upon his father’s retirement, which provided him the platform to handily win his Congressional seat.
As Rev. Dr. Powell, Giancarlo Esposito, gives a rousing performance, sometimes stealing the scene with his spot-on mimicking of the flamboyant, sometimes bombastic Baptist minister. Anyone who is familiar with Adam Clayton Powell’s antics will recognize Esposito’s portrayal.
Among Bumpy Johnson’s coterie of mafia higher ups was the third member of his triumvirate, chairman of the Five Family mafia commission, Frank Costello (Paul Sorvino). The late Paul Sorvino [deceased July 25, 2022], needs no further introduction. Neither does the legendary, Academy Award–nominated, Chazz Palminteri, in the role of anti-Bumpy Johnson Italian mob commission member, Joe Bonanno.
The original Godfather of Harlem soundtrack by Swizz Beats is the icing on this production. The signature theme song of the series, “Just In Case,” a collaboration of Swizz Beatz, Rick Ross and DMX, speaks of preparation for confrontation and will whet your anticipation for the action and drama that is sure to follow. Epic Records is distributor of the Godfather of Harlem soundtrack. Executive producer, Swizz Beatz pulled out all the big guns (this is a gangster movie) to create a score for Godfather of Harlem that has already earned itself a rank among classic film soundtracks.
Godfather of Harlem is A Must Watch!
by Regi Taylor