Content Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the show Godfather of Harlem.Godfather of Harlem is a must-see gangster series starring Forest Whitaker as crime boss Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson. The show is a prequel to the 2007 movie, American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Johnson’s right-hand man, Frank Lucas, and follows Johnson’s resurgence to power after his release from prison in 1963.
The series features historical figures including Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali with a star-studded cast consisting of Vincent D’Onofrio, Paul Sorvino, Chazz Palminteri, and Giancarlo Esposito. With the recent conclusion of the show’s third season, Godfather of Harlem has delivered some of television’s most epic and powerful episodes centered around a vital time in American history, many of which have impressed fans on IMDb.
10 “It’s a Small World After All”
Season 2, Episode 5 (2021)
IMDb Rating: 8.2/10
After an incident at Johnson’s club, Vincent Gigante (D’Onofrio) wants Johnson to reprimand his man for killing one of his men or risk their peaceful partnership. Johnson attempts to send his man out of town, but when he refuses to leave, Gigante’s men retaliate against Johnson and his crew.
“It’s a Small World After All” perfectly depicts the plausible and uncontrollable conflicts between Johnson and Gigante’s men. After being betrayed by Gigante, Johnson realizes that he will never be treated as an equal by him or any of the five families forcing him to find another long-term solution.
9 “Chickens Come Home to Roost”
Season 1, Episode 10 (2019)
IMDb Rating: 8.3/10
Harlem and the rest of the United States are in shock after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy which leaves the possible indictments of the Italian mafia in limbo. With Gigante still out for Johnson’s head, he secures his safety from the five families by threatening to hand over their books to the federal government if they come after him or his family.
While everyone mourns the tragic death of Kennedy, Gigante and the families toast in celebration of what they believe is the end of federal indictments. Johnson’s a master of numbers who was entrusted with the books of the five families before going to prison. While Johnson stands firmly against snitching, he’s willing to make an exception and face possible prosecution himself if it will protect his family from harm. It’s an especially character-driven episode in the crime show that highlights the protagonist’s motivations.
8 “Masters of War”
Season 1, Episode 7 (2019)
IMDb Rating: 8.3/10
Out of fear of starting a civil war with Gigante, Bonanno and the other families refuse to sell to Johnson leaving him empty-handed. He goes off a hunch and digs into Gigante’s past uncovering information about Joe Bonanno’s (Palminteri) son, Lorenzo who went missing several years ago. With no other options, Johnson decides to use the newly discovered information as a solution to his business problem.
In the “Masters of War,” Johnson strategically plans for Bonanno and Gigante to engage in war creating a distraction from current business matters. Unlike the Italian bosses, Johnson does everything in his power to avoid personally using violence as a solution and instead relies on his natural intuition and street smarts to plant the necessary seeds of deception.
7 “Sting Like a Bee”
Season 2, Episode 2 (2021)
IMDb Rating: 8.3/10
After disobeying the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) travels to Florida to show his support for boxing star, Cassius Clay (Deric Augustine) before his fight against Sonny Liston. While Malcolm’s in the sunny state, Bumpy’s back home where he plans on using his new French connection to distribute his product to other major cities along the East coast.
“Sting Like a Bee” is a monumental episode that takes a closer look at the friendship between Malcolm X and Cassius Clay A.K.A. Muhammad Ali. The episode also gives audiences a look behind the ceremonial curtain at the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X’s inner struggle with pleasing both his superior and his conscience.
6 “The Ballot or the Bullet”
Season 2, Episode 6 (2021)
IMDb Rating: 8.4/10
When three Freedom Riders go missing in Mississippi, Bumpy uses his connections to help the FBI find them in exchange for protection against a Federal indictment. The FBI continues to push its efforts on taking down the Italian families but Gigante manages to throw them off his trail by claiming to have a mental health condition.
“The Ballot and the Bullet” centers around the true story of three Freedom Riders, who were murdered during the Civil Rights Movement by the Ku Klux Klan in Mississippi. While some of the facts are not officially confirmed, the FBI did use muscle from the mob and recruited Gregory Scarpa, a member of the Colombo family to help in their search efforts (according to NBC News).
5 “Ten Harlems”
Season 2, Episode 8 (2021)
IMDb Rating: 8.5/10
After forming a group partnership, Bumpy discovers that someone in the ranks of the Ten Harlems has betrayed him and must find out who before they make a move against him. The tension between Malcolm X and the Nation of Islam begin to rise as Malcolm and his family are faced with threats and violence.
“Ten Harlems” shows the major difference between the way Bumpy and the Italian mob conduct their business. The Italian families don’t lose any sleep over whacking a guy whereas Bumpy is deeply affected whenever he’s forced to use violence against others. The episode also features a great guest appearance by Method Man who plays Sam Christian, a member of Bumpy’s Ten Harlems.
4 “The Bonanno Split”
Season 2, Episode 9 (2021)
IMDb Rating: 8.6/10
After learning the truth about the murder of his son, Joe Bonanno is out for blood and his first order of business is abolishing the families’ Commission. Bonanno’s choice forces Bumpy into the situation by protecting Sam Costello (Sorvino) and other members of the five families.
In “The Bonanno Split” the tables turn as Costello and others need Bumpy’s help and are put into a vulnerable position for the first time. While the possibility of a civil war between the families would be beneficial to his business, Bumpy’s loyalty keeps him from turning his back on Costello who has vouched for him since day one.
Season 3, Episode 3 (2023)
IMDb Rating: 8.6/10
As Colombo tries to move in on central Harlem, Bumpy turns to Cuban kingpin, José Battle (Yul Vazquez) with a generous offer to form an alliance with him against the Italian families. At first, Battle politely declines, but after witnessing Bumpy’s fierce encounter with the five families, he reconsiders their partnership.
“Mecca” puts Bumpy in a compromising position that could either increase the authorities’ attention on him or create new potential enemies. Bumpy, who has endured a lifetime of injustice and loss, sympathizes with Battle and provides a unique contrast between the characters’ past and personal experiences.
2 “Captain Fields”
Season 3, Episode 4 (2023)
IMDb Rating: 8.7/10
Captain Reggie Fields (Derrick Williams) is a young Black man and the new head of the 27th police precinct in Harlem, but despite the change in ranks, the precinct remains on the Italian families’ payroll. When two officers raid Bumpy’s club on Colombo’s orders, Fields dismisses the charges and indirectly helps Bumpy gain the upper hand against Colombo.
The newly appointed Captain Fields unknowingly creates a monumental shift in power between Bumpy and the Italian families as he and Battle can make a solid move for the 27th precinct. “Captain Fields” is another notable twisty episode from the show where Bumpy beats the five families at their own game.
1 “The Hate That Hate Produced”
Season 2, Episode 10 (2021)
IMDb Rating: 8.8/10
When riots erupt in Harlem, Bumpy must keep his rivals at bay and protect his product as he waits for the largest shipment in New York history to arrive. The threats against Malcolm X start to hit too close to home for him and accepts protection from Bumpy.
“The Hate That Hate Produced” takes place during the riots in July 1964 which raged on for over a week in Harlem. The episode is an exceptionally powerful one that doesn’t sugarcoat the raw reality of the riots as well as the immense social injustice and discrimination against Black Americans at that time.