Godfather of Harlem returns for its third season with Forest Whitaker as notorious gangster Bumpy Johnson and Giancarlo Esposito as Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. continuing to perform at the highest level.
Even though they are portraying historical individuals, both the acclaimed performers and the show have always been able to manipulate the facts in order to create a more fantastical narrative. From the anachronistic musical flare to the crackling intensity in critical passages where we just get to sit with all these fascinating personalities, it all takes on a life of its own that remains captivating.
The broad outlines of time’s progression remain the same, and the series continues to be grounded in key events. However, Godfather of Harlem is at its best when it allows its actors the opportunity to savour every piece of conversation while the characters negotiate the power balance behind closed doors. There is still a great deal of spectacle, like a man being crushed to death by a car and more shootouts in which people are blown to bits, but it is the quieter moments that shine brightly and cut through the mist of the protagonists’ environment.
In the first three episodes of the third season offered for review, Bumpy is once again in peril, despite his best efforts to maintain control over Harlem. Whether from other criminal elements or the authorities, he has a growing target on his back. Bumpy will not surrender what he has constructed since his release from prison without a struggle, despite the fact that he will need to take greater risks and forge new alliances to survive.
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As fascinating as it is to see him devise a way out of each new predicament, it is also appropriately depressing to know where this will inevitably lead. It is not a spoiler to argue that his current lifestyle is unsustainable.
Nevertheless, regardless of how fundamentally flawed he is, a portion of us harbours the hope that he will find a way to make it work long enough to return to the straight and narrow.
Bumpy is rife with inconsistencies as he battles with how to proceed into the future, and Whitaker does a great job of bringing these contradictions to life. Every scene in which he lets loose is further evidence that he is and will always be one of the greatest actors currently working.
There are numerous moments in which Bumpy erupts as a manifestation of the wrath and frustration he feels as his world crumbles. This is evident in every aspect of Whitaker’s performance, from the rage in his eyes to the edginess in his voice.
Nonetheless, he is also equally adept at playing everything quietly. With relative ease, he is able to communicate wittier and warmer humour to his buddies. When he welcomes the individuals he loves, we can glimpse a nicer man beneath the feared and ruthless exterior.
It is a mask that both Bumpy and others around him wear. In a moment in which he is forced to kill someone at the behest of a new ally, the weight that falls upon his shoulders breaks away this mask, which was already frail. We are aware that he is capable of committing such evil deeds, but we can see that it is difficult for him in so many ways. Although he is no longer a young man, he must act as if he is in order to portray strength.
In the final scene in which Bumpy goes to commit violence alone and realises that he has been misled, Whitaker’s performance allows us to experience every bit of stress. He is methodical yet nearly exhausted, avoiding notice with the skill of a professional who knows no other way to navigate the world. Whitaker is like Bumpy in that he could carry the entire show by himself, despite the fact that the majority of the principal cast members are excellent in their own right. The issue remains: for how long can he continue?
The sequences where we are not with him can be significantly less engaging, both in terms of plot and acting. This season, Jason Alan Carvell has replaced Nigél Thatch in the role of Malcolm X, which is a particularly major recasting. Clearly, numerous television series have replaced departing stars with new ones. Nonetheless, this one takes some getting used to. While Carvell is not unconvincing as the characters, we had grown accustomed to Thatch’s performance and his ability to find poetry in the midst of suffering.
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This is somewhat lost when the character is transported away from the main plot for a journey that, while realistic, lacks nuance in what it is attempting to convey about the character’s growing worldview. Carvell could certainly fill the large shoes, but the series as it currently exists does him no favours, especially when compared to the historical video of the actual guy.
Thankfully, the questions of legacy that resonate throughout these sequences are sufficiently connected to the remainder of the first few episodes to allow one to refrain from passing harsh judgement on certain narrative diversions.
Particularly, the series has just the right amount of dark comedy that is interspersed throughout to enhance the minor moments and smooth out the majority of the other rough spots that plague the plot. Godfather of Harlem continues to excel where it matters most, with Whitaker delivering yet another exceptional performance at the forefront.
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