It’s been 16 months since “Godfather of Harlem” ended its maiden run on Epix.
The Season 1 finale in December 2019 left some unanswered plot points, since the drama starring Forest Whitaker as real-life Harlem gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, hadn’t yet been renewed (that happened in February 2020). Now, after a long COVID delay, “Godfather of Harlem” returns on Sunday (April 18) at 9 p.m. and picks up right where it left off, shaking off the rust with an intense premiere episode catching us up on where Bumpy stands — and on the road on which he’ll travel as the season unwinds.
Season 2 picks up in February 1964, three months after the events of Season 1. Bumpy, the target of New York’s five crime families, is still in Harlem but moving around furtively (he’s grown a beard) to avoid assassins’ bullets. His wife Mayme (Ilfenesh Hadera) and young granddaughter are with family in South Carolina until it’s safe to return; Bumpy’s daughter Elise, (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), who found salvation in the Nation of Islam, has grown closer to her father while he’s hiding out and switching apartments on a daily basis to avoid detection.
Bumpy’s bloodthirsty enemy, Vincent “The Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio), is running Harlem now but remains bent on killing Bumpy once and for all after getting the OK from family heads Frank Costello (Paul Sorvino) and Joe Bonanno (Chazz Palminteri). He’s out to avenge Bumpy’s Season 1 murder of “made man” mob guy Richie Zambrano, but that’s really just an excuse to knock Bumpy off and remain Harlem’s crime boss.
We’ll also meet some new characters as Bumpy sets his criminal sights on hijacking the lucrative “French Connection” heroin pipeline — running from Corsica to Marseille to New York Harbor — from his Italian rivals and forming a nationwide syndicate that will funnel the drug money into both his and his associates’ pockets. To do that, he must win the confidence of Jean Jehan (Ronald Guttman), who runs the French Connection and is as wary and calculating as Bumpy, while colluding with US Attorney Robert Morgenthau (Justin Bartha) to bring down the Five Families. It’s a slippery slope, but Bumpy is just the guy who can pull it off.
“Godfather of Harlem” executive producer/writer Chris Brancato does a nice job of putting last season’s events into context while pushing the narrative forward vis a vis the French Connection (which spawned a 1969 book and the classic 1971 movie starring Gene Hackman and Roy Scheider). Unlike other dramas set in distinct eras, “Godfather” doesn’t repeatedly hit you over the head with obvious pop-culture references to reinforce its timeframe (“Look — it’s the Beatles on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show!’ This must be February 1964!”). Those touches are subtle (vis a vis set furnishings, clothing, cars, etc.), and while it may take some artistic license with Bumpy et al. it never feels forced.