Forest Whitaker Gives a Captivating Performance
Jan 20, 2023
If there is one thing you need to know about the historical drama that is Godfather of Harlem as it returns for its third season, it is that it has Forest Whitaker as famed gangster Bumpy Johnson and Giancarlo Esposito as Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. continuing to act at the top of their game. Though each is playing historical figures, both the acclaimed actors and the show itself has always been able to play around with facts to craft something that is closer to a fable. From the anachronistic musical flair to the crackling energy in some of the key scenes where we just get to sit with all these rich characters, it all takes on a greater life of its own that remains enthralling.
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Sure, the broad strokes of the trajectory of time remain the same and the series continues to ground itself in significant events. However, Godfather of Harlem is at its best when giving its actors room to chew up every line of dialogue while the characters carry out discussions about the balance of power behind closed doors. There is still a lot of spectacle, with everything from a man being crushed to death in a car to yet more shootouts with people being blown away, but it is the smaller moments that shine bright to cut through all the murk of the world the characters inhabit.
In the first three episodes of this third season provided for review, Bumpy is in trouble once more, though is doing all that he can to hang onto control of Harlem. Be it from other criminal elements or the government, he has had a target on his back that gets ever larger. While surviving all this will require taking some additional risks and discovering some new alliances, there is no way that Bumpy is going to let go of all that he has built since coming out from prison without a fight.
Image via MGM+
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For all the ways it is entertaining to see him scheme his way out of each new scenario, it also is appropriately tragic knowing where all of this will inevitably end up. It isn’t a spoiler to say that this life he is leading is not sustainable. Yet, no matter how fundamentally flawed he is, there is part of us that hopes that he can find a way to make it work long enough to go on the straight and narrow. Bumpy is full of contradictions as he struggles about how best to move into the future and Whitaker is simply outstanding in bringing to this life. Every scene we get with him letting loose is just further proof of how he is and will always remain one of the greatest working actors out there today.
There are plenty of instances where Bumpy effectively explodes as an encapsulation of the rage and frustration he feels at things crumbling around him. You can feel this in all facets of Whitaker’s performance, from the fury in his eyes to the edge that sneaks into his voice. With that being said, he is also just as great when playing everything subtly. He is able to convey more sly humor and warmth to his friends with ease. When he greets people that he cares for, we can see a kinder man underneath the cruel one that most have come to fear. It is a mask that Bumpy wears, both for himself and the people around him. In one scene where he is told that he must kill someone at the behest of another new ally, the weight that falls on his shoulders subsequently rips away this already fragile mask. We know he is capable of doing these types of dark deeds, but we can see that this isn’t easy for him to do in so many ways. He is no longer a young man but still must pretend to be one in order to project strength.
In one climactic scene where Bumpy goes to carry out violence alone and discovers that he has been misled, we feel every once of the tension because of how Whitaker carries himself. He is methodical yet almost tired, avoiding detection with all the practice of a pro who knows no other way by which to move through the world. While most of the main performers are all great in their own ways, Whitaker is much like Bumpy in that he could carry all of this on his own. The question remains: how long he can do so?
Image via MGM+
The scenes where we aren’t with him can prove to be far less compelling, both in terms of the story and the performances. In particular, there has been a rather significant recasting this season in that Jason Alan Carvell has taken over from Nigél Thatch in playing Malcolm X. Obviously, plenty of television series have brought in new actors when others stepped away. Still, this is one that takes some getting used to. While Carvell is not unconvincing as the characters, we had grown used to the particulars of Thatch’s performance and the way he was able to find poetry alongside the pain.
That gets a little lost here when the character is sent away from the main story for a journey that, while true to life, feels a bit too blunt and lacks depth in what it is trying to say about the character’s evolving worldview. Carvell could very much grow into the big shoes, but the series as we’ve seen it now is doing him no favors, especially when we see the historical footage of the real man. Thankfully, the questions of legacy that reverberate through these sequences still link back to the rest of these first few episodes sufficiently enough to allow one to hold back from placing too much judgment on some of the narrative diversions.
In particular, the series has just enough of a sense of dark humor that is sprinkled throughout to add a greater texture to the small moments and smooth over most of the other rough patches that trouble the story. When all else has been stripped away, Godfather of Harlem continues to deliver where it counts, with Whitaker giving yet another outstanding performance at the head of it all.
You can watch the first episode of Godfather of Harlem January 15 on MGM+ (formerly EPIX) with the remaining nine episodes releasing weekly.
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