Forest Whitaker is the sort of star seemingly built to make the leap to television: He’s a decorated leading man whose subtlety of approach and whose commitment to delicate, unusual acting choices would seem to potentially play even better on the small screen. After stints on various network shows, Whitaker finally gets his showcase in “Godfather of Harlem,” a new Epix hourlong series set in the political ferment of the early 1960s. And, through his recessive and quiet charisma, he provides the strongest case for the series.
Like others of Epix’s recent series, including “Pennyworth” and “Perpetual Grace, LTD.”, “Godfather of Harlem” has a strong popcorn element: It’s aiming more for extreme watchability than for prestige. Which makes it a compelling fit for Whitaker, who, as the career criminal Bumpy Johnson, recently freed from prison, returns to Harlem to rule his domain with quiet, seething power. The title fits: Whitaker’s performance is not unlike Marlon Brando’s as “Godfather” Vito Corleone, with a restrained impulse for violence coursing under a calm exterior. Unlike that other crime boss, though, Bumpy Johnson has a higher goal: Not merely to bring his neighborhood’s organized crime scene to heel under his command but to restore order, a cause that is both sweeping and, given his daughter’s addiction to the drugs flowing through the streets, personal, too. Unlike the show’s version of the Italian mob, Bumpy is a don with a higher purpose.
This doesn’t consistently make much sense, and the show’s depiction of the Italian mobsters as raffish louts lacks any imagination or real take on the material. (Give them credit, at least, for going with the best: The casting of the likes of Vincent D’Onofrio, Paul Sorvino, and Chazz Palminteri gives scenes that otherwise feel tired a nice patina of quality.) The most impressive aspect of the show may be its incorporation of the black politics of the era, with a well-drawn Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito) presenting two different approaches to change: Idealist and pragmatist, rebooting the system or working within it. It’s a debate that can sometimes be staged on slightly fantastical grounds, as in an episode in which Bumpy finds himself interacting with a young Cassius Clay in the earliest moments of his engagement with Malcolm X. It strains credulity that Bumpy always finds himself at the heart of the action, perhaps, but taken on its own terms, this device also allows surprisingly high-level conversations about the best way to make change to flourish. And combining a softness and stillness with real, unmistakable anger at the state of his world, Whitaker makes for a terrific vessel for those debates.
“Godfather of Harlem.” Epix. Sept. 29. 10 episodes (five screened for review).
Cast: Forest Whitaker, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ilfenesh Hadera, Nigél Thatch, Paul Sorvino, Chazz Palminteri, Giancarlo Esposito, Lucy Fry, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Antoinette Crowe-Legacy, Rafi Gavron.
Executive Producers: Chris Brancato, Paul Eckstein, Forest Whitaker, Nina Yang Bongiovi, James Acheson, Markuann Smith, Joe Chapelle.