Chris Brancato (2021) | Courtesy of Starz
Chris Brancato (2021) | Courtesy of Starz

Chris Brancato on the Moral Conundrum in ‘Godfather of Harlem’

Chris Brancato talks about addressing today’s hot-topic social issues through the lens of the ’60s in the television series, Godfather of Harlem.

Godfather of Harlem
Chris Brancato, Paul Eckstein

In the second series of Chris Brancato and Paul Eckstein’s Godfather of Harlem (2019-), Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker) is at war with New York’s Italian families, who have sanctioned his murder. Continuing his efforts to gain independence, he attempts to access the lucrative “French Connection” heroin pipeline that runs from the Port of Marseilles to New York Harbor. Influenced by his friend Malcolm X’s (Nigél Thatch) message of Black economic nationalism, it will bring him into conflict with not only the Italian crime families, but his wife Mayme (Ilfenesh Hadera), daughter Elise (Antoinette Crowe-Legacy), political rival Senator Adam Clayton Powell (Giancarlo Esposito), and Malcolm.

Brancato continues to explore an interest in the criminal underworld, having written the screenplay for the feature film Hoodlum (1996), directed by Bill Duke with Laurence Fishburne in the role of Bumpy Johnson. He co-created with Carlo Bernard and Doug Miro, the Netflix series Narcos (2015-2017), about the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. He also wrote the sci-fi horror sequel Species II (Medak, 1998), and is writing the screenplay for the third film in the current Sherlock Holmes film series, which is in pre-production, with Robert Downey Jr set to reprise his role as the famous sleuth.

In conversation with PopMatters, Brancato talks about creating a moral conundrum for the audience, the responsibility of the series in the wake of George Floyd’smurder, and exploring the intersection of crime and civil rights.

Why storytelling as a means of creative expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment for you?

When I got out of school many years ago, I had a notion to be a writer. I always did well with my school papers, but I was very ill-equipped to enter the job market. Let’s put it this way, I was restless. The idea of having one particular job for a long period of time that didn’t change was frightening. 

I happened to meet a friend who’d been hired as an actor on a television show. I saw the script and I had that arrogance of youth to think, ‘I can do better than this.’ It wasn’t true, it took years of learning the craft, and honestly, the decision to become a writer for television and film was based on needing a job. I was fired from most other jobs, so it was a matter of necessity. 

I learned the craft and what it took to work in the business, in other words, a thick skin, and a dedication to learning the principles of writing scripts. Later on came a desire for artistry and to try to do shows that spoke to my own interests. For many years I was only interested in trying to sell shows. I’d do what you wanted me to do, or what I thought you wanted me to do. It led to some dreadful writing, and only later in my career when I started to ask myself what I was interested in, what were the subjects I wanted to explore, did I start to write stuff that was more pleasing to me, but seemingly more pleasing to the audience.

Godfather of Harlem alongside Narcos suggests you have an interest in the criminal underworld. 

I’m not sure what it says about me that I have a fascination with drug dealers, the criminal underworld, and the people that are willing to challenge societal rules who are walking that razor’s edge of criminality. Is it a criminality borne of lack of morality, or is it borne of lack of economic opportunity? There’s something fascinating about the gangster world, of people who don’t want to follow society’s norms. 

With Godfather of Harlem, the light bulb went on when I realised that Bumpy Johnson had a friendship with Malcolm X. The way to do the series was not to simply make it a traditional mob war between the blacks and the Italians. Not only had I done a version of that in the movie Hoodlum, but it was going to yield the same tropes that are in any gangster show, of the backstabbing and the betrayals. 

It wasn’t until I started to think about this relationship between Bumpy Johnson and Malcolm X that I thought the show would be a collision of the criminal underworld, and the civil rights movement. It would have an eye toward examining crime as something that happens when second-class citizen groups have barriers to entry to the more legitimate professions. I thought crime could be explored as a means of attaining civil rights, as opposed to criminality and greed, although that’s a part of it too. 

There was a lens to write this show through that felt original. I was certain when I was pitching the show to buyers that they’d recognise they’d never heard of that combination before. One of the things we’re fighting in today’s modern television world with all the choices viewers have, is we’ve seen an iteration of everything. How do you make something seem fresh and original? Oftentimes you have to take two things that don’t belong in the same sentence, put them together, and try to figure out where the intersections occur. 

It turned out the intersections between crime and civil rights in the 1960s were vast, like the mobster Frank Costello’s lawyer was also [Senator] Adam Clayton Powell’s lawyer. I found lots of areas to explore that seemed fruitful, but would still allow us to do the gangster show that we all know and love. The murders, the backstabbing, the betrayals could all still be a part of it, they’re just slightly turned on their ear, and it feels fresh. 

Bad Attitude: The Art of Spain Rodriguez (Stern, 2021) offers an insight into the underground comic book movement of the ’60s, and We Are As Gods(Alvarado and Sussberg, 2020) explores another side to the decade through the life and work of American writer Stewart Brand, an advocate of resurrecting extinct species. 

It’s a diverse period of time, and what interests me is how films work together to paint this rich portrait, yet have a strong individual identity. Godfather of Harlem is an example of this, exploring another side to the decade that touches upon the relationships between Bumpy Johnson, Malcolm X, and Cassius Clay.

It’s a wonderful idea that you can go back in time and research particular people and social movements and present them in a way that hopefully viewers are curious about what was going on, and even go to their computer, or go to the library and look into it further, but that’s a secondary goal. The first goal is to entertain, to make people enjoy the hour that they spend watching it on the telly.

There’s another factor that’s important, which is, Why go to the expense and trouble of doing a period piece with all the extra costs? unless it’s making a statement about the way we’re living today. Godfather of Harlem creates a safe distance to explore things that are going on for us right now in both of our countries [US and UK], like police brutality, voter suppression, peaceful versus non-peaceful protest, economic inequality, and immigration. These are hot-button issues to talk about in a contemporary setting, but when they’re set in the ’60s, they become safer to explore. The viewer will definitely make these associations, and they’ll realise things haven’t changed all that much, or in some cases, things have changed. 

In our country [the US], for the African American population, things have changed quite a bit, but on another level they haven’t changed at all. The show offers a forum to explore those issues, hopefully without beating you over the head with them. They’re part of the fabric of the show itself. 

We understood the subject matter we’d be dealing with was going to have contemporary relevance. In-between seasons, we had the murder of George Floyd, which then made Paul Eckstein and myself, and the other writers, realise we had a unique responsibility, and also a privilege to be able to explore these divisions that are happening in front of us. We had the opportunity to delve into them further.

What viewers will see in the second season is the same level of tension and gangster drama that they’re used to in the show, but also a further exploration of things that are happening in our contemporary society. Again, refracted through the past, it will give the second series more gravity, more resonance. I hope viewers will see that.

In the US and in the UK, inequality remains such a troubling issue that I question whether full equality will always be an evasive reality. Humans are wired in a way that will thwart such noble and necessary ambitions. 

As long as we have eyes and we can make distinctions between people, some form of tribalism/racism will exist. There’s no way to eradicate it; it’s part of the way we’re wired. To some degree, it’s part of a survival instinct that hews back to the beginning of mankind. The show thinks about what mafia organisations are–these separate tribes, bound by rules, tradition, and honour. 

What we try to explore on Godfather of Harlem is the safety that a tribal group presents, the absurdity of tribal rules and regulations, and the necessity of breaking past tribalism to understand that we’re all interconnected. We all have the same hopes and fears. 

In the second series, Bumpy Johnson is forced into making alliances with people whom he never thought he woul. What that does for him, his men, and those opposing forces, is it challenges them to see if they can get past the petty concerns, the visual aspects of, “you’re different than me”, in order to work together. In our case, that means selling heroin. 

The show offers a chance to look at how these different tribal groups react to the idea of alliances. Stripping aside the gangster elements that make it thrilling to watch, hopefully, at its core, it presents some of the pitfalls of tribalism, and it makes a person think more about the necessity of aligning with groups that are “other”. 

Bumpy and Malcolm’s relationship is integral to the series. The two men effectively juxtapose one another, the need for the black man to be both politically minded and also willing to fight back when necessary. The series draws our attention to questions in the pursuit of change, where do you draw the line between peaceful protest, and applying forceful pressure? Bumpy and Malcolm are both lost in this moral labyrinth, but their struggle is a timeless one.

Malcolm believed that the black gangster on some level was a representation of the race that was worth noting. For instance, the black gangster rejected white authority, was willing to strike back and be violent if necessary. The black gangster was someone who had no fear of the society in which he was put. Similarly, when Bumpy is talking to Malcolm about his efforts in the second series, if Malcolm says, “The black gangster needs to get political, then white America will tremble”, Bumpy says, “The political black man needs to get more gangster.” It’s an interesting element of their relationship. 

The show doesn’t seek to condone Bumpy’s criminal endeavours. As we watch the series develop, particularly in the second year, Bumpy is challenged about bringing drugs into the community. As much as he’s supporting and uplifting the community through philanthropic efforts, he’s also decimating it with the drugs. 

When Paul Eckstein and I speak about the scope of the series over the course of the years, we like to call it, “The education of Bumpy Johnson.” We want to bring him slowly but surely to the point where he fully and truly recognises that a large part of what he’s doing to his community is damaging. He’s going to have to confront that reality little by little over the course of the series, until he seeks, and must find redemption. 

The show doesn’t condone criminal activities, but it allows us to be seduced by the characters. We don’t necessarily feel sympathy; rather we find them to be interesting. In one scene, Bumpy’s wife Mayme is taken to a drug den, where she witnesses firsthand the misery that finances her luxurious lifestyle.

Suddenly we are confronted by these characters and their world that entertains us. We’re confronted by the moral complexities of finding people interesting, versus the foundations of empathy. It’s a moral labyrinth we shouldn’t be afraid to enter but it challenges us in uncomfortable ways. 

When I first was working on Narcos, I went to Medellín in Colombia, to take my first scouting trip. Wagner Moura, the actor who played Pablo Escobar, was there. He was enrolled in the University of Medellín, learning how to speak with a better Spanish accent, because he’s Brazilian. We were meeting for dinner for the very first time.

I already had a game plan for what we were going to do in the first season. We were going to see Escobar do things like take down an airplane, bomb Bogotá, and kill scores of police. As I arrived at the table in the restaurant, Wagner stood up, and as we were reaching to shake hands I saw his face. I thought to myself, ‘He has such a warm accessible expression.’ He’s so likable upon first meeting him, he has some quality, that I remember thinking to myself, ‘This is so good. I’m going to make the viewer have a horrible time deciding whether to love him or hate him.’

I automatically felt the conundrum that the viewer would be in when they saw this highly likeable and charming man playing a true villain. Escobar in real life did many philanthropic things, as gangsters will do, but he was not a good human being, he was a street thug. Creating that moral conundrum for the viewer, both in Godfather of Harlem and Narcos, is what makes me get up in the morning. 

But you have to be careful. I’ve been asked, “How do you feel about glamorising these people?” There’s a certain amount of glamorisation that happens when you tell their story in this fashion, that will influence a portion of the audience. What I usually say to that is, “We’re all individuals who make our own choices in life, and hopefully we have enough grounding and sense to decide not to become criminals on the basis of watching my shows.” At the end of the day, Escobar reaps what he sows, and Bumpy Johnson will reap what he sows over the course of time.

I’m glad you noticed that moment when Mayme is taken into the drug den and told, “This is what pays for that beautiful apartment you have.” In the second series you’ll see Bumpy questioned on that level, not only by Malcolm, but by other people who will start to remind him that his fortune is built on human misery. We’ll explore that even further as the seasons go on.