“Godfather of Harlem” concluded its 10-episode run Sunday night — with an open-ended finale portending the future.
“I would frame it as the chickens coming home to roost … for every single character,” says series writer/executive producer Chris Brancato, who expects the Epix series starring Forest Whitaker as real-life Harlem gangster Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson to return for a second season (there’s nothing official yet, but it’s extremely likely).
“Malcolm X (Nigel Thatch) was warned by Elijah Muhammad (Clifton Davis) not to speak about the Kennedy assassination but he says he’s glad about it because it’s a reflection of America’s violence boomeranging back,” Brancato says. “For Bumpy, his war to reclaim his portion of Harlem led to a killer coming into his own home and almost succeeding in killing him.
“For Adam Clayton Powell (Giancarlo Esposito), his stiff-arming of [alleged mob go-between] Esther James has led to criminal contempt citations which means he can’t be in Harlem except for Sundays when the cops aren’t working.
“All of these things these characters have attempted to do over the course of the season have, in one way or another, backfired,” he says. “But we know, at the end of the episode, that Bumpy will likely be a protector of Malcolm, in one form or another, as they walk away together.”
Sunday night’s finale also culminated in the Italian mob, led by Vincent “The Chin” Gigante (Vincent D’Onofrio), intent on killing Johnson, while Malcolm X is in trouble after disobeying Elijah Muhammad — scenarios expected to play out over the course of the expected second season.
“Bumpy is certainly on the outs; he’s the target of a five-family hit, and Malcolm is suspended indefinitely from the Nation of Islam and clearly has enemies from within,” he says. “Adam Clayton Powell is dressing in a wig” — a rare moment of comic levity in Sunday night’s episode. “What you’re going to see in Season 2 are these characters all adjusting to new circumstances.
Each episode of “Godfather of Harlem” carries a disclaimer that while the series is “inspired by actual persons and events, certain characterizations, incidents, locations and dialogue” were invented for dramatic purposes. For instance, Brancato says he and co-creator Paul Eckstein took some historical license in Sunday night’s finale: Bumpy wasn’t really attacked and nearly killed in his Harlem high-rise by a Sicilian hitman (called a “Zip”) dispatched by Gigante (and saved by his grown daughter, Elise, played by Antoinette Crowe-Legacy).
“Those specific actions are the product of my imagination as we tried to close out the season and Bumpy’s relationship with Elise as effectively as possible,” he says. “That said, we do know this: Bumpy was the occasional target of rival hitmen and we know that the Italian-American crime families in New York sometimes imported Sicilian hitmen.
“While ‘Chin’ Gigante was not the recognized crime boss of the Genovese family until the late 1970s, and was based on Sullivan Street in the Village — ‘Fat Tony’ Salerno ran Harlem — our research showed us that while Salerno was pushed as the boss, actually it was Chin calling the shots in Harlem and controlling Salerno’s moves, to some degree.
“We just decided, alright, who do we want to be Bumpy’s antagonist?” he says. “Chin was in jail in ‘63 and ‘64 but we felt like, what with him wearing a bathrobe in the Village (to feign mental illness) and with all the weirdness, he was a more colorful figure to play off of Bumpy.”
Brancato says the initial intention was to cover one calendar year per season but he and Eckstein eventually rethought that approach as Season 1 of “Godfather of Harlem” progressed.
“Because Malcolm X dies in 1965 that would mean only three seasons of this wonderful actor [Nigel Thatch],” he says. “Now we’re thinking, ‘You know, maybe we don’t have to do each season as a calendar year. Maybe we can do a couple of seasons of 1964 and ’65.
“We have all kinds of things in store for viewers as the seasons move along, not the least of which is the whole country is changing at a rapid step,” he says. “In 1964 you’ll see more of the beginnings of more violent protests and a violent response from the KKK and others … and by Season 4 or 5 you’re going to see afros replacing short-cut hair in Harlem and the Black Panthers emerging as young black men by the score are drafted into Vietnam and taken out of the community.”
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