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Series / Godfather of Harlem

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"Open up my window again..."

Godfather of Harlem is a 2019 Crime Drama that airs on MGM+.

The fact-based series stars Forest Whitaker as Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, a notorious gangster who returns home after spending 10 years in prison at Alcatraz to find his neighborhood in chaos due to the heroin epidemic and incursions from the Genovese Crime Family, specifically Vincent "The Chin" Gigante (Vincent D'Onofrio). In an attempt to win his neighborhood back, Johnson finds himself making alliances up with figures such as Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) and Congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. (Giancarlo Esposito) while also dealing with his own familial and community issues.

The series premiered on September 29, 2019. On February 12, 2020, it was renewed for a second season, which premiered on April 18, 2021. On January 13, 2022, it was renewed for a third season, which premiered on January 15, 2023. On November 29, 2023, it was renewed for a fourth season.

Tropes Associated with Godfather of Harlem Include:

  • Age Lift: The real Gigante was in his mid-30s at the time this series is set whereas Vincent D'Onofrio was 60 when he took the part.
  • Always a Bigger Fish:
    • Gigante is powerful but he is only the acting boss of the Genovese family. His decisions can always be overridden by the imprisoned Vito Genovese. He also cannot go against the wishes of the Mafia Commission since that would mean war with the other Mafia families. However, as long as Gigante does not overstep his bounds, these people are unlikely to interfere on behalf of Johnson. If the Commission sides with Gigante, Johnson either has to try to fight it out or go to the federal government and hope that he can get protection in exchange for his testimony.
    • When the Mafia forces Johnson out of the heroin business, he hatches a plan to distribute cocaine instead. However, to get a sufficient supply he has to cozzy up to the CIA. The new alliance gives Johnson a massive advantage but he soon comes to regret it when the CIA starts making demands on him that he is unwilling to fulfill.
  • The Alcatraz: The genuine article, where Bumpy was imprisoned, is occasionally seen in flashbacks.
  • All for Nothing: After everything that Bumpy goes through in Season 2 to take over the French Connection, all the heroin he bought ends up burning down during the Harlem Riots.
  • Artistic License – History: As the show itself admits, there's a lot of historical liberties taken in the story for the sake of narrative purposes.
    • Chin Gigante is shown to only have one child, that being his daughter Stella. In real life, Chin had multiple children, and while he did have a number of daughters, none of them were named Stella.
    • Will Harvey was not killed by Bumpy Johnson or Chin Gigante in real life, rather, he died of a heart attack. He also is shown dying in the mid-60s in the show, whereas he died in 1976 in real life.
  • Assassination Attempt: Several attempts are made on Malcolm's life throughout Season 3 due to his communist ties and efforts to unite the Civil Rights Movement under his banner. One finally succeeds in killing him in the season finale.
  • Bullying a Dragon: Will Harvey thinks it's a good idea to threaten the daughters of men like Chin Gigante and Bumpy Johnson to try and force them to do what he wants. They throw him off a roof for his troubles.
  • Cartwright Curse: Poor Stella Gigante can't seem to find a love interest without having her father be responsible for their deaths. Her first love, Lorenzo Bonanno, was killed by Chin out of his hatred for taking advantage of her at a young age, Teddy Greene is shot by one of Chin's men who went rogue, and Ernie is killed by Lombardi at Chin's original orders due to his involvement in killing a made man (and Teddy's killer), even though Chin tries to stop Lombardi at the last minute. Ultimately averted with Joe Columbo, who is arrested at the FBI's hands, though that too had Chin's involvement.
  • Casting Gag: This isn't the first time Vincent D'Onofrio has played a powerful New York City mob boss.
  • CIA Evil, FBI Good: Played with. While Robert Morgenthau and the FBI aren't exactly good people, they have noble goals in trying to rid Harlem of the corruption of the Italian Mafia and the African-American gangsters fighting for control in the city. And even in their most morally grey moments, they're significantly more noble than Will Harvey and the CIA, who are intending to stage a second invasion of Cuba and kill Malcolm X at all costs to prevent the spread of communism.
  • Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: For all their talk of 'loyalty', the mafia and their associates are quick to betray each other for their own personal gain. Bumpy is the only one who makes an effort to maintain his own moral code.
  • Chuck Cunningham Syndrome: Frank Costello, the head of the Five Families, is a very prominent character in the first two seasons. After being warned to not come to Joe Bonanno's death trap for the Five Families by Bumpy Johnson however, Frank completely disappears from the show and is never mentioned again. Real Life Writes the Plot in this case, as Costello's actor Paul Sorvino had passed away in 2022, and obviously couldn't reprise the role.
  • Criminal Procedural: The movie shows how the crime world overlaps with history, religion, and politics.
  • Dangerously Close Shave: Bumpy Johnson's weapon is a straight razor.
  • Death by Adaptation: In real life, Will Harvey lived until 1976, when he died of a heart attack, as opposed to how the show presents him being thrown off a roof by Chin and Bumpy in 1965.
  • Death by Irony: In the Season 1 finale, Ernie attempts to prevent Teddy Greene's death by warning him and Stella about the danger the former is in, only to watch in horror as he's shot to death out of nowhere. In the Season 2 finale, Ernie himself is shot to death by Lombardi when Chin attempts to call off the hit he put on him, much to the latter's despair.
  • Decapitation Presentation: In "Angel of Death", Colombo delivers Monsieur 98's head to Bumpy in a bag to symbolize how he's taken control of the French Connection.
  • Destination Defenestration: In the Season 3 finale, Chin and Bumpy throw Will Harvey off a roof for threatening their daughters.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: From Johnson's perspective the assassination for President Kennedy is this. The Kennedy administration is going after the Mafia and Johnson gets the New York mob families to back off by threatening to turn over to the feds records of tax evasion by the dons that will put all of them away for a long time. The one thing Johnson did not anticipate was that the President of the United States will be murdered and the new administration backs away from anti-mob investigations.
  • Enemy Mine:
    • Malcom X hates that Johnson is selling drugs in Harlem but he allies himself with Johnson in order to keep Gigante out of the neighborhood.
    • Johnson and Gigante hate each other but they are also very pragmatic criminals who understand that they are both underdogs in New York's underworld and the real opposition are the other Mafia families. In season 2, once they are no longer allowed to try to kill each other, they quickly reach an understanding that allows them to get rich at the expense of the other Mafia dons. Later they help each other out when they are targeted by the FBI.
    • In Season 3, Johnson forms an alliance with Spanish Harlem crime boss Jose Battle in order to create an equal partnership that allows them to get out from under the Italians' overlordship.
  • Epic Fail: In Season 3, Johnson sends his best men to perform a hit on a journalist as a request for Jose Battle. They forget to put bullets in the gun and their target escapes while they are trying to figure out why their gun will not fire. Afterwards they admit to Johnson that they screwed up beyond belief and there is no excuse for their failure.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • As ruthless and violent as Bumpy Johnson is, he will never, ever, ever snitch on fellow criminals, even if it's at his best convenience to do so. That said, Season 3 does show Bumpy makes a special exception if one of those criminals is working for the government, since it's more punching up than punching down.
    • Chin in the most vicious and brutal of the mafia leaders, but is disgusted when the rest of the Commission vote to overlook Bumpy's violations of mob laws in order to guarantee their supply of heroin goes uninterrupted.
    • In Season 3, Chin immediately drops any personal amnesty with Bumpy Johnson when he realizes that not only is Joe Columbo planning to take over Harlem, but that he's doing so with the help of Will Harvey and the rest of the CIA.
    • In general, the Italian mobsters are quite racist against black people, but they do not like the KKK and consider them little more than Nazis. Ernie himself is more than willing to work for Bumpy Johnson to kidnap and interrogate two KKK members on his behalf, even subjecting one of them to a Cruel and Unusual Death because of his hatred for them.
  • Everyone Has Standards: Adam Clayton Powell may be a sleazy Corrupt Politician and Sinister Minister, but he ultimately finds blackmailing one of his colleagues with explicit photos of sex at a nightclub to be too dirty even for him to go through with.
  • Foregone Conclusion:
    • The series is based on the lives of real historical people so anyone familiar with that part of history knows how major plot lines will conclude.
    • Muhammad Ali will not throw a boxing match.
    • Malcolm X will survive numerous attempts on his life but will be assassinated on February 21, 1965.
  • Friendly Neighborhood Gangster: Bumpy Johnson is a deconstruction of this trope. Indeed, he does use the money he makes selling duji to put young men and women into colleges and donates to local clubs and charities in Harlem. However, his product is still destroying the lives of many addicts on Harlem's streets, and he is just as brutal and violent as any other criminal when the chips are down. By the tail end of Season 3, Bumpy begins to realize just how much damage his criminal acts are causing, and can't hide the truth of it anymore from what's happening.
  • Historical Domain Character: Most everyone, but the more notable characters are Malcom X, Muhammad Ali, and Bumpy Johnson himself.
  • Ironic Echo: After screwing over one of Bumpy's plans and leaving him in debt to Luchesse, Gigante gloats that "that's me, above you". In the Season 1 finale, after killing the hitman Gigante sent after him, Bumpy calls him to let him know he failed, and throws the line back at him.
    Bumpy: Your friend from Sicily's going home in a box. You're next. And that's me, above you!
  • Jurisdiction Friction: In Season 3, the FBI and CIA clash over who gets to go after Malcolm after his newfound alliance with Che Guevara, the Agency claiming him as a national security threat, while the Bureau points out that his being on US soil puts him in their territory.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: When Chin realizes how much Stella genuinely loves Ernie and that they were secretly married, he desperately attempts to call off the hit he put on him by running into the bank he sent Ernie and Lombardi to rob. He's unfortunately too late, and has to witness Ernie suffer a Boom, Headshot! at Lombardi's hands. Chin is so distraught over this that he accepts his arrest at the FBI's hands and tells Stella that he doesn't blame her at all for ratting him out to them.
  • Never My Fault: Bumpy refuses to accept responsibility for his role in how heroin is destroying people's lives, blaming his customers for getting addicted in the first place. He gradually starts to realize it in Season 3 however, and after working with Chin to prevent the CIA's second invasion of Cuba, he decides to get out of the narcotics business for good.
  • Obfuscating Insanity: As in Real Life, Gigante feigns insanity to avoid testifying to the FBI and Congress.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Vincent Gigante, who plays the part of Dumb Muscle but is a lot smarter and savvier about the inner workings of the crime world than he lets on. This is lampshaded by Bumpy Johnson at their first meeting.
  • Off the Wagon: Narrowly subverted with Elise. After working hard to distance herself from her addiction to duji that was destroying her life in the pilot episode, she's kidnapped by Will Harvey in Season 3 and forced to relapse on it against her will, and is dumped on the street for Bumpy to find. Thankfully, her devotion to Islam prevents her from undergoing a true relapse.
  • Oh, Crap!: Johnson experiences this when he realizes that too many bets have been made on a single number in the Numbers Lottery and is Properly Paranoid enough to realize that the lottery has been fixed. He does not have enough money to pay out all those debts and if he does not pay out, his reputation and power base will be gone.
  • One-Steve Limit: There are two Italian men in the mob named Joe that Bumpy Johnson encounters during the course of the show: Joe Bonanno in Seasons 1-2, and Joe Columbo in Season 3.
  • Papa Wolf:
    • Gigante is a violent man in the best of times, but you do not want to get involved with his daughter. When he finds out that Olympia attempted to perform a hit on Stella through Tommy Lucchese, he cuts off the latter's fingers, and flat-out chokes the former while screaming at her that she's dead to him.
    • Bumpy Johnson is similarly provoked if anyone attempts to harm Elise or Margaret. When Will Harvey kidnaps Elise and forces her to relapse on heroin, Bumpy conspires with Chin to take him down, and they both push him off a roof to his death when Harvey reaffirms the threat to both Elise and Stella unless they do what he commands.
  • Pet the Dog: Despite Bumpy and Chin's murder of Will Harvey after promising to allow Robert Morgenthau to arrest him, Morgenthau decides to let them both off due to their involvement in taking down Joe Columbo and Jose Battle. He does warn them that he's still gunning for them however, and will be there to arrest them once again.
  • Politically Incorrect Villain: Vincent Gigante is unapologetically racist, which gives his desire to run Harlem a personal angle, as well as being particularly resistant to his daughter's romance with Teddy.
  • Put on a Bus to Hell: Joe Bonanno's plot to murder the heads of the Five Families is exposed by Bumpy near the end of Season 2, and he's forced to leave New York for good.
  • Put on a Prison Bus: After accidentally getting Ernie killed in the Season 2 finale, Vincent Gigante is arrested at the hands of the FBI thanks to Stella spitefully going to them to pay retribution. He spends much of Season 3 behind bars, only being released in the penultimate episode to help Bumpy defeat Joe Columbo, Jose Battle and Will Harvey.
  • Star-Crossed Lovers: Teddy Greene, a black musician, is in love with Vincent Gigante's daughter Stella.