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Executive Producer Markuann Smith Talks Season Two of "Godfather of Harlem"

Almost two years ago, actor turned executive producer Markuann Smith joined forces with Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, Chris Brancato, Paul Eckstein, Nina Yang Bongiovi, John Ridley, and James Acheson to bring the untold story of Bumpy Johnson to Epix in the television series Godfather of Harlem. After a successful first season in 2019, the series was picked up for a second season, which was expected to begin filming in 2020, until the COVID-19 pandemic halted all film and television production in New York City where the series is filmed and is set (the story takes place in the New York City neighborhood of Harlem in the 1960s).

"We were supposed to start shooting actually in April. We were looking forward to warm days in New York shooting, and then COVID happened and it pushed us back a couple of months all the way until we started shooting in November," Smith said in an interview with The Quintessential Gentleman's Kadeem Lundy. "It was really kind of like hectic doing it. We were able to shoot and get it done, but it took us quite a while to get acclimated to the COVID rules. I could tell you I took over 57 COVID tests going back and forth on set. Our producers, our network, our studio wanted to have as safe as an environment as possible and we were all looking forward to going back in April. But we knew we had to just wait and make sure that everything was taken care of," Smith added.

After finally getting production rolling late last year, filming wrapped in time to premiere the second season this past April. "Well, you know as season one ended, you saw that Bumpy had a price on his head, and my character, Junie Byrd, was actually talking to Bumpy and he walked away and Bumpy got into the shootout with the the the zip that came in from Italy. As the season ended, Mayme and Margaret went down south to hide and Bumpy and the rest of the crew were on the mattresses. We were hiding from the Italian mob. And it was actually hell up in Harlem. So as the second season starts, we start talking about the French Connection and the drugs that was coming in from Marseilles and how Bumpy can get back to the streets knowing that he has a price on his head and him getting Margaret and Mayme back up to Harlem safely. And it's just a real big game of chess as you watch this as the season unfolds in front of you. So, you'll see Bumpy, he's grown a beard he's looking older. We all ragged, we are all hungry, we all on the run. And then, you know, hell breaks loose," Smith shares about where season one left off.

There were many prominent historically significant Black men portrayed in the series aside from Johnson, including Malcolm X, Cassius Clay who later became known as Muhammad Ali, and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Earlier this year the relationship between Malcolm X and Clay was briefly explored in the Regina King directed film One Night in Miami, and during this second season of Godfather of Harlem the pair's relationship is also explored as well as Malcolm X's conflict with breaking away from the Nation of Islam.

"It's history repeating itself. I mean, if you look at the narrative of the show, we're telling real historical pieces. Season one, Malcolm was going through a little rift with the nation, and [now] season two he's going through a bigger rift with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad along with the nation. And these are all historical facts, for example, if there wasn't any Godfather of Harlem, you can actually go look at this on YouTube and read Malcolm's biography with Alex Haley in any type of research, you'll find out that Malcolm was going through issues within the nation. So it was very important that we showed that aspect of this show, the balance of where you can make your own decision for yourself. It's not about telling you what's right and what's wrong. We're just storytellers. And it's not a documentary. It's more of entertainment, but entertaining and education at the same time. I call it edutertainment." Smith said.

As far as showing a different side of Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Smith said, "I think the first season you were getting acclimated to who Adam Clayton Powell Jr., A.C.P. It makes me feel good to know that our show would bring a family together to actually sit down and watch. So you have a younger generation watching it with the older generation. So as the second season starts, you see who Adam Clayton Powell was. He wasn't just about women and having a nice cocktail, but he was a civil rights leader. He did so many things for African-Americans. He was on the front line and we won. It was very important that we show that and Giancarlo Esposito is an amazing thespian in the way that he was able to grab the spirit of Adam Clayton Powell Jr. and actually become his character was just phenomenal."

Markuann Smith

While the series is set in the sixties, many storylines represented remain relevant today and in particular in an episode this season, a plotline exploring police injustices committed against Black individuals, things we have seen recently with George Floyd. Speaking to art reflecting life Smith exclaimed, "I always said Muhammad Ali is our Colin Kaepernick. Right. I will say the Harlem riots of Ferguson, 63 you had the BLM rights. You had the Metoo movement. You had the LGBTQ movement. You had the Black and I'm proud movement that was coming up. This is so parallel to what's happening right now in America. There's no difference to me personally than what happened in 63 than what we're seeing right now in 2021."

"One thing I like about the writing that I love that Chris and Paul and the rest of these guys did was we didn't try to force Bumpy as being a hero or a good guy. We try to force him as being a human being who was tortured and he was trying to find himself. You know, you have an older gangster that was born in 1905 in Charleston, South Carolina, that comes back comes back from doing all this time in Alcatraz in 1963. It's a whole different world now. These are the same Italians that he sat down and broke bread with. These are the guys that started the five families from Lucky Luciano to Frank Costello to Vito Genovese, to Bugsy Siegel to Meyer Lansky. So he's a gangster's gangster because to be able to get locked up and go to Alcatraz you graduated from all the other penitentiaries. You're in the jail of jails. So it's very important because Bumpy his mindstate was always for the people. But he didn't know what to do with that because he didn't want to become a gangster. He actually came to Harlem to become an attorney, just like Malcolm X did. But when he went to the bursar's office at City College and they said, you know what, we're not going to give you financial aid because you're colored he said, I'm going to make you eat those words, and he took what he had and all that he had and he became his legend that we know of as Ellsworth Raymond, Bumpy Johnson. " Smith said about how Bumpy is fleshed out in the series.

While we are currently five episodes into the season, Smith was adamant that for the rest of the season viewers will be in for a ride, "I tell people strap up is going to be a roller coaster, you know, what you see may not be really what you see. It's a bunch of chess moves, calculated moves. You'll see the characters grow and become closer as you see on season two episode four, how one protagonist gets with another, antagonist and they can work together finally, you know, so as the season progresses, you'll see the emotional build-up of what was happening in the lay of the land at that time in 1964 from Mayme to finding out if Margaret will ever find out who her mother really is, to Bumpy and his rift with the Italians. I've been trying to take him off the street, and take him out of the game, to Malcolm and his relationship with the Nation of Islam. It's so many different pieces and different layers for you guys to enjoy."


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