Epix’s Godfather of Harlem returns this Sunday (January 15) for a third season focused on a tumultuous 1964 which included the Harlem Riots and Malcolm X’s transformative pilgrimage to Mecca. For protagonist Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker), his journey focuses on a ruthless drive for complete autonomy from the Mob. In this exclusive interview with series creators and showrunners Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein, the pair discuss the new historical characters appearing this season, the controversial move to recast Nigel Thatch’s Malcolm X, and early plans for a future show set in the same universe.
Listen to the full audio version HERE.
BeatsBoxingMayhem: Congratulations on season 3 — I’m only three episodes in but am enjoying what I’ve seen so far. One of the main things that hit me with the show is a lot of characters are striving for independence. Do you feel the type of independence these characters are looking for is an illusion for the black and female characters in 1964 America?
Chris Brancato: Well Ismael, that’s a great question. I think you’re absolutely right that each character represented in season’s past are seeking independence [and] authority over their actions without opposition. It’s almost an impossibility for Bumpy — it’s an interesting notion of independence through strategic alliance. And we see in this season it’s a difficult objective with these alliances.
Paul Eckstein: And I also think when you’re thinking of independence or freedom which included African Americans at this time, a lot of it just has to do with self-reliance. To [be able] to educate, to feed, [and] take care of your own people. At this moment in time it’s still not a reality that’s achievable for most black people. In many ways, these alliances Chris is talking about are friendships and alliances where we recognize that to actually be self-reliant and on your own per se, you have to be in partnership with other people. You have to be in community with other people who are around you. It’s an interesting notion to actually look at in many ways. Godfather of Harlem is about exploring freedom and what it really means to be independent. What it means to be truly free as a black man and woman in America in the 1960s. At its essence, that’s what it’s about.
One thing I enjoy is that we have a lot of historical characters so you play on a little bit of the audience’s expectations if they’re familiar with the character. For example, with Sam Christian from the Philadelphia Black Mafia last season, those who know his real story know he passed in the last 5-10 years. But, in the show he doesn’t make it so I think that was a good little trick for people who may have expected him to stick around. Now, with this season we have even more characters like Jose Battle and Joe Colombo on the scene now and Malcolm’s pilgrimage to Mecca. What is the sweet spot for both of you where you’re staying true to the historical reality but also playing with the narrative a little bit just so audiences are staying on their toes?
Brancato: Well, first of all I’m very impressed you brought up Sam Christian! I actually think that was a strategic mistake on our part. At first, we were sort of an emirate of this idea of this Sam Christian character and then we end up kind of offing him which does not square with reality. You caught that but I sort of wish we had made him a fictional character that got offed as opposed to making an error when it comes to reality. But Ismael, I think the most important thing you’re saying is we’re forced to create a universe with historical figures and we work very hard to try to keep aligned with the true spirit of their true actions and demeanor.
For instance, Malcolm is an easier character to create for because he wrote an autobiography of 1200 pages. So we have a lot of his own words to help form our iteration of his character. Bumpy , much less so. Paul’s mother was sent to secretarial school by Bumpy Johnson so I’ve been hearing about Bumpy from Paul for over 35 years. But, there’s very little written or recorded about what he said. So, we’re forced to take the spirit of the man as we imagine him and try to put him through this arc of personal growth. We see him gaining a consciousness about some of the actions he perpetrates that aren’t good for the community. You’ll see that more in this season than any previous.
We have a responsibility to drama more so than historical reality and hopefully we walk that line carefully enough that we don’t offend folks and that we entertain them.
Eckstein: Chris and I are real history fanatics. Chris has a degree in history and you know it’s something we just do naturally all the time. We know we’re not doing a factual representation of exactly what went down. But nothing really pleases as a creator then when the audience gets juiced and they go look for themselves, right? What I hope is everybody watches our show and goes to find out who these people were — whether it’s Sam Christian or Adam Clayton Powell. Are they going “Wow, I didn’t know who this guy was” and then suddenly a whole world of history opens up to them and they realize what we’re dealing with now isn’t the first time we’ve got any of these [systemic] issues that we go through. A look into history that can be more just a boring old book you do for class — it’s living, it’s breathing.
I like to think we’re the enablers of that. Like “hey man, you’ve got to learn your history because there’s some stuff that went down that you need to know about.” And when that happens, we win.
It’s a great starting point for season 3 to be dealing with 1964. It’s a very transformative year with the Harlem riots. We also had Malcolm’s trip to Mecca and because you know I do cover boxing, we have [Muhammad] Ali who won his first title in ’64. I’m wondering if there’s going to be more Ali we’ll see this season?
Brancato: I’m disappointed to say I don’t think we’ll see Ali the rest of the season, which is painful to say to a boxing journalist. [laughs] We felt we had done a pretty nice job with a wonderful actor in Deric Augustine and capturing a version of Muhammad Ali. To be honest, to do Ali would’ve forced us into exploring his schism with Malcolm which he regretted later on in his life. We weren’t able to find a way to work that into the drama of this season which is unfortunate because we loved the actor who played Muhammad for us.
Speaking of Malcolm, having to recast is always such a big decision. A lot of shows say “let’s just kill the character off” [because] that’s simpler. You guys made a bold move to go with Jason Alan Carvell. I think he’s done a wonderful job and I think people will really get to him once they see a few episodes. What drew you to him to know he would be exactly what you needed from Malcolm after having such a wonderful performance from Nigel Thatch?
Brancato: That’s such a great question. First of all, a combination of business negotiations and COVID delays pushed our schedule in a way that made it impossible for Nigel to work with us because he was pursuing other things. So, we were forced into a situation that no one wants. You’re taking an actor in Nigel who’s so brilliantly filled those shoes and having to replace him with some poor other guy to fill those shoes.
We got very lucky because we auditioned lots of people and were very, very nervous. We saw Jason’s performance and really for me it was Forest Whitaker calling us and saying “You know what? I’m telling you I think this is the guy.” And we obviously liked his audition a lot but when Forest weighs in, it carries weight not just because he’s a fellow executive producer, it’s more so that it’s Forest Whitaker telling you — you may want to listen!
Jason gives his version of Malcolm, and I’m so happy you said this Ismael, just sort of “Oh!okay,” accepting of this new Malcolm and I think he has warmth and a gravitas. It’s very powerful and we were lucky to have gotten an excellent replacement for a brilliant actor who we weren’t able to get really because of time constraints.
We mentioned Sam Christian earlier so let me make a little confession. I’m working on a non-fiction book about Murder Inc. so when I’m in New York I do a lot of research at the Municipal Archives. So, when I doing that I came across a never before seen picture of Stephanie St. Clair, a mugshot I’ll probably be publishing this month. The reason why that stuck in my mind is because she’s referenced in one of the earlier [season] episodes and it made me think. Would you guys consider entering her into the series being that you worked with her story before in Hoodlum and she’s still alive in this timeline?
Brancato: You are so on point. [laughs] We’ve talked about that a lot but our corporate overlords at MGM are very interested in us developing Hoodlum as a series with Stephanie St. Clair as the star. So, we’re at the point right now where we’re fiddling with how we tell the Stephanie St. Clair story set in the 30s. Obviously, we put her in Godfather of Harlem and I think she was still around until the mid to late 60s but she would be a very old woman. We’re pondering for Godfather of Harlem but we’re actively trying to figure out if we can do a Hoodlum series.
I think the rants some the characters go on are always fantastic. The one that sticks with me is Chin’s [Gigante’s season 1] rant, I call it the “Me Above You” speech that he gave Bumpy. I wonder if there’s anyone this season that might be going on a rant like that. If I had to guess I might think it’s Joe Colombo but I’m wondering if anyone else goes off like that?
Brancato: [laughs] I’m going to tell a few quick funny stories. Yes, I hope you find a rant or two that you love. Yes, Joe Colombo or maybe Jose Battle and who knows maybe even from Chin if he gets out of jail at some point…
Eckstein: Spoiler alert…
Brancato: When we did that scene there was scripted dialogue and then Vincent D’Onoforio came in and he grabbed that scripted dialogue and made it his own as he always does. The “me above you” was something he did extemporaneously — he added that on and we thought it was powerful. And Forest called me afterwards and said “I felt really weird that he was saying all that stuff and I never even responded to him.”
And we said, “Hey man, he beat you. You had just beaten him in four episodes and this time he shut you down and you don’t have nothing to say. There’s no need to open you mouth.”
And we said, “Well, if you like it we can have you go back in your office and express your anger alone.” He sort of doesn’t love that but kind of reluctantly agrees — he kind of trusts us and says “Ok, I’ll do it.” But what he really wanted is us to shoot him yelling back at Chin.
So, that final shot of episode 105 is him going into the office and destroying his table with a baseball bat. If you take a look at the end of 105 you’ll see that and you’re going to think it’s because he’s so angry about what Chin did but in fact he destroyed that table so we couldn’t do another take. [laughs]
By the way, he’s the nicest man in the world and zero problems so I don’t mean anything by that. It’s just he went in and expresses all his anger on that table and ended up making it a one-take possibility because we weren’t expecting him to destroy the table. But it worked out well for the show.
Godfather of Harlem Season 3 premieres January 15th, 2023 on MGM+
EPIX becomes MGM+ on 1.15.23