Sometime between the release of Howard Hawks’ Scarface in 1932 and The Sopranos‘ finale 75 years later, the mafioso became a quintessential American archetype: an outsider with no traditional path to wealth who seeks his fortune through violence. Al Capone and Lucky Luciano have retained their mythical status decades after their deaths. Yet Bumpy Johnson, a black crime boss who ruled Harlem in the mid–20th century–a pivotal era for both organized crime and race relations–has remained a relatively obscure figure in pop culture.
With Godfather of Harlem, premiering Sept. 29 on Epix, creators Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein (Narcos) team up with executive producer and star Forest Whitaker to give this story the deep dive it deserves. Set near the end of Johnson’s life, it opens in 1963, with his release from Alcatraz after 11 years behind bars. Back home, he finds Harlem changed. Young kids have risen in the ranks. The Italians are making a play for his turf. Before Bumpy gets the chance to take his proverbial coat off, everybody wants something from him.
That includes the leaders of a civil rights movement that’s starting to gain ground. Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch, reprising his Selma role) and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito, smartly cast) aren’t just part of the 1960s setting; along with Bumpy, they represent divergent paths to influence for black men in a racist society. While Powell used politics and Christian faith to effect change, Malcolm X embraced Islam and activism. Johnson, whom Whitaker plays with quiet gravitas, was known for charity as well as brutality. But he got rich off the very drugs Malcolm X viewed as a scourge on the black community. Far from a mindless shoot-’em-up–though it can get bloody–Godfather dissects these complicated relationships even as it examines how white supremacy operates within the criminal underworld.
Between this thoughtfulness and scenes of intense violence, Brancato and Eckstein sometimes struggle to maintain a consistent tone. Add subplots about Bumpy’s family, crooked cops, the Italians (Paul Sorvino, Vincent D’Onofrio, Chazz Palminteri) and star-crossed love, and episodes can get crowded. Still, the show’s ambition pays off in the rare gangster epic we haven’t seen before.
This appears in the October 07, 2019 issue of TIME.