Why write history? ‘Godfather of Harlem’ creator Chris Brancato on writing a compelling historical drama
June 10, 2021
It’s hard to come up with an original concept when the mob is involved. From The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire and in an era when streaming is the new normal, you have to be pretty creative to premiere a mob drama on cable TV, gather an audience, and hold their interest for multiple weeks.
Godfather of Harlem has done just that. Considered a work of dramatized history, Godfather of Harlem follows the life of drug trafficker Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker) who, after spending a decade in prison, returns to his community to find that heroin has run rampant, the Italian mob has taken control, and the tumultuous civil rights era of the 1960s is in full swing.
For show creator Chris Brancato, creating Godfather of Harlem has an extensive history and his desire to ensure the themes of the show transcend time is as critical as getting the voices of the era — including civil rights pioneers like Malcolm X — as part of the narrative.
The TV origins of Godfather of Harlem
Brancato had tackled the early life of Bumpy Johnson when he wrote the 1997 film Hoodlum. He initially passed on creating this version until a few producers he knew approached him about telling the story of Johnson in the 1960s — Hoodlum took place in the 1930s.
“I said no,” Brancato said, adding that he had already done that character.
"So, I asked my friend Paul Eckstein if he wanted to tackle it and he said yes."
Eventually, Brancato decided to join the project though.
"As Eckstein and I started to talk, we realized that Bumpy was friends with Malcolm X. It gave the creators the opportunity to have organized crime and civil rights weaved into the narrative of the show."
Brancato and Eckstein wrote the script of the pilot first and then went out with it because they knew Whitaker wouldn’t commit without seeing a script. Once Whitaker was interested, Epix picked it up.
Writing Godfather of Harlem
A lot of research has gone into the writing of Godfather of Harlem. At some point though, just like in any project, the research must stop and the writing must begin. Drawing the line between fact and fiction is a challenge any filmmaker or TV show creator must grapple with but, as Brancato has stated, “Research only goes so far and we’re not writing documentaries, we’re writing dramas. At some point, I would rather have a writer jump into writing the script with too little research than hang around forever in the morass of research and get only a portion of the script done.”
According to Brancato, one of the show's characters who almost nothing is written about is Bumpy Johnson.
“Our lead character did not publish [an autobiography], but he is mentioned in articles and books, and Mayme (Johnson’s wife) wrote a book but it only concerned him in the 1940s so it wasn’t as relevant to our story. It involves an enormous amount of creative research.”
Bumpy Johnson stands as a man who was a criminal because he was denied economic opportunities because of his race; but the show refuses to sugarcoat his involvement in heroin, which screwed up his community big time. Bumpy gets challenged for being a heroin dealer more and more, and he justifies what he does because he keeps the money in the community. That justification, though, is going to fall flat as the seasons go along.
Godfather of Harlem states at the beginning of the show that parts are dramatized. Nonetheless, it’s important to Brancato that it keeps the spirit of the times and the characters as intact as possible.
“It’s a show where research is very important and both seasons had tremendous researchers with an eye toward creating interesting side tributaries, interesting information having to do with the central thrust of what the episode is,” he said.
Research and creativity come together in an example that includes a scene in which Malcolm X is in a police station and says, “We didn’t come in here to sit in, we came here to stand up.” Malcolm X had actually said this, but a police station wasn’t where he said it.
Brancato said, “When I read it, I knew that was a perfect line to say for that scene.”
When Brancato reads information that intrigues or inspires him and his writers, they try to work it into the plot, just like the Malcolm X line mentioned above.
“It's a little bit of a grab bag,” he said.
“We let our writerly imagination and sense of structure operate freely on the one hand and gain the spirit of the characters through research on the other. The best writers are able to take nuggets of information through the research and get it into the show in a way that makes it feel organic.”
Writing history creatively
Why write history?
Along with writing a story based in another time period, the writer is asking for a studio or investors to contribute all that extra money for costumes and cars and visual FX, such as taking out every modern thing on the sidewalk within a given shot.
Why should they give you that money when most people want to watch contemporary stuff?
“It’s because whatever you’re doing is making a commentary of what’s going on today,” Brancato said.
“It’s a platform in which you can examine issues that are relevant to us today, but through the safe prism of the past.”
Brancato believes you have to look at historical drama not just as an interesting story and think it should be created into a film because it’s interesting — there are a billion interesting historical stories.
“What’s the angle or take you have on it that makes it really special?” Brancato asked, adding, “It’s not just another biopic about somebody in some period of time but rather, how can you spin it in a way that is fresh?”
He considers one of the best examples to be 2015’s The Big Short, written by Charles Randolph and Adam McKay, based on the book by Michael Lewis.
“Who wants to watch a movie about the housing crisis? They figured out a way.”
With Godfather of Harlem, Brancato references the murder of George Floyd, which took place between seasons, as a catalyst to tackle police brutality, voter suppression, and peaceful versus non-peaceful protest in season two and beyond.
“You can’t do that with a contemporary show because you can get it by watching any news channel today,” Brancato said.
“If it’s in the past, we get this safe remove to examine stuff without people jumping all over your back. You have to look at historical dramas, making it very clear about the contemporary relevance and allowance of historical issues to talk about what matters to the viewer and their life today.”
Finally, when it comes to writing historical drama and managing the research involved, Brancato gives the following advice:
“What’s more important than the research is that the scenes have drama and conflict, they flow from one to another, and the themes are evident in your writing. That’s more important than an endless amount of useless information.”
Godfather of Harlem is currently running in its second season on Epix.
Written by: Steven HartmanSteven Hartman holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Columbia College and had internships at Jerry Bruckheimer Films and Village Roadshow Pictures, where he was the assistant to the director of development. His screenplays have placed in a variety of competitions including 'Fatty Arbuckle', which was a Top 5 Finalist in Big Break’s Historical Category in 2019. Steve is a full-time writer and creative video producer by day and a screenwriter and novelist by night.