If you knew the day you would die, how would you spend your time? Who would you spend your time with? For Godfather of Harlem’s Malcolm X, it would be to savor the moment, expand the time as much as possible and to continue to allow others to dream. Dream of a better future, dream of a world full of possibilities and equality. For Malcolm X, that day wasn’t about anger or fear but acceptance and forgiveness. Forgiving the friends who viewed him as an enemy and knowing that while the government may have won the battle against him, they would never stop the movement.
MGM+’s Godfather of Harlem has seen many deaths, some deserved, others questionable, but nothing more profound than the death of Malcolm X. It tore the Nation of Islam apart and ripped out the heart of one of the most ruthless crime bosses who failed to protect him.
In season 3, tensions have reached a boiling point for Bumpy Johnson (Forest Whitaker) on the business and the home front and more so for his sworn brother, Malcolm X. After surviving assassination attempts both at home and recently overseas in this latest season, viewers were engrossed by the civil rights leader’s journey to fight to unite the African American and African community while accepting the dangers of his cause.
The story of Malcolm X has been told before (most famously by Spike Lee) but the MGM+ series presented a fresh new perspective that dives into the internal struggles that Malcolm X dealt with in the wake of his split with the Nation of Islam, his complicated friendship with Bumpy Johnson that added an emotional tautness and vulnerability.
Played by seasoned actor Jason Alan Carvell, after taking over the role of the historical figure for the Godfather of Harlem’s third season. The Koalition spoke to Carvell about the evolution of the civil rights leader’s life, his complicated relationship with Bumpy Johnson and delivering an emotional depiction of one of the saddest moments in Black History: the assassination of the beloved Malcolm X.
“Knowing and understanding what is coming and then trying to expand [the] time that’s left [was a heavy task]. I think Malcolm had a sense of what was coming next for him, not just in the assassination but also beyond. He had that spiritual dimension. [In the episode] it’s the transition he’s trying to understand. So, feeling the tangible real things around him, the relationships he has [and] the connection he has to release, [he’s] trying to savor it and also almost collect it, to keep it in his spirit as he makes that transition. [It’s important] to pay attention to things because that’s what Malcolm did best. [My goal] was to pay attention, understand and let things live within himself so he can move forward knowing that transition was coming.”
Within this season of Godfather of Harlem, viewers were treated to the evolution of Malcolm as he embarked on this new journey, forging new bonds amongst the African diaspora but facing the very real dangers of the government and his friends/family within The Nation of Islam. Speaking throughout the world, Malcolm X is not the man he once was. It is easy to get into a fight in his past life where violence begot violence. His transformation is one of acceptance. Shot in slow motion, just before he’s ambushed on stage, Malcolm sees the men who are about to kill him. He reaches for his gun, looks into his family’s eyes and decides that violence at his end will not make him a better man. With death literally at his feet, he soaks up the moment and accepts his fate, knowing that his death will prevent others from dying that day if he were to shoot back.
“He makes [the] decision not to pull [the gun out]. That’s where his whole life almost crashes into itself, because there was a time in his life that wouldn’t have been a second thought. But at this moment in his life, with everything that’s led up to it, and all of the change, and all of the growth he’s had in his life, it stops him. Also, the presence of his family; his girls are there, his wife is there and understanding a bloodbath is devastation not just for him and his family but also for the community. [So, he made] the decision to take what was coming without causing harm to somebody else, without deliberately causing somebody else’s pain or death.”
“To me, [that’s] the moment where Malcolm really becomes [the] Malcolm we understand [him to be]. He made an active choice to take suffering unto himself rather than inflict on other people. It’s hard sometimes to understand because the instinct for self-protection is obviously the strongest we have, but his instinct was to protect himself, his family and his community by not bringing violence on somebody else.”
In a way, its poetic that in Malcolm’s last moments, as a man who was so well hated, he would forgive others. “He understands his spiritual reward, so he’s not worried about what happens next and [he has] the space to forgive. [This is something his] spirituality offers. [This] is something Malcolm fully understood, so it was basically saying, ‘I don’t need to be this person that I used to be, I don’t need to be the kind of person people expect me to be, I can be that embodiment of spirit I’m trying to be now.'”
For more than 30 years, Bumpy Johnson was famous for being one of New York City’s most revered — and feared — crime bosses. His wife called him the “Harlem Godfather,” for good reason. Known for ruling Harlem with an iron fist, he dealt with anyone who dared challenge him in a brutal fashion. However, Johnson was also known for being a gentleman who was always willing to help out the less fortunate members of his community.
In hopes of rehabilitating the neighborhood and advocating for its Black citizens, politicians and civil rights leaders drew attention to Harlem’s struggles. One leader was Bumpy Johnson’s old friend, Malcolm X. Bumpy Johnson and Malcolm X had been friends since the 1940s, when the latter was still a street hustler.
Johnson provided financial support for Malcolm X’s organization. Together they organized several events in Harlem and promoted unity among the community while also providing educational opportunities and job training programs.
But their relationship was complicated. While they both wanted to enrich people’s lives, they had different ways of accomplishing their goals that often came in direct conflict with each other. Bumpy was known for trafficking drugs in the neighborhood, while Malcolm tried to educate those in the same community about the ways “we narcotize ourselves against being black in America.”
Their friendship was hard for the both of them. “It’s hard and he just can’t shake it because his relationship with Bumpy is part of what created him and even as he makes that decision to grow into something different, he can’t avoid the fact that without Bumpy he wouldn’t have been in a position to make that transition and to grow. [This show and Malcolm displays] forgiveness, which I think is right when it comes to Bumpy as well.”
“Malcolm understands Bumpy has been his guy, even if it’s been in the wrong direction. He’s still been his guide and without that guidance he wouldn’t have understood how to make the turn into spirituality, into leaving that behind. And it’s family too. We all have one or two people in our family or even [among] our friends where we’re like, ‘I’m not gonna let that person go even though I know it might get me in trouble.’ You don’t let him go because it’s blood or because there’s something else that binds you together.”
Malcolm X knows he shouldn’t be associating with a known criminal like Bumpy Johnson. “Bumpy does good in the community too. Malcolm understands education is important [and] there’s Bumpy helping people with education. He helps people be housed, he puts a roof over people’s heads, puts food in people’s mouths. Obviously, [Malcolm] wants to see Bumpy go in a different direction, but he also appreciates the power he has within the community to do good. So, it’s a constant conflict. But he just loves the man, and he can’t let him go.”
Johnson was deeply affected by Malcolm X’s death, but he continued his own struggle for justice within his own community. “Malcolm would have given up his life if he could just have saved Bumpy. That [las scene where Bumpy breaks down crying after learning about the death of Malcolm and regrets not saving him] still tears me up because that’s the whole story of their relationship. All Bumpy wants to do is save his friend and here’s Malcolm saying, ‘I don’t want that kind of saving. I don’t want [you] to save my life by losing yours.’ Bumpy is his own man and he makes his own decisions, just like Malcolm. There’ll be regrets, [they’ll] be great regrets from Malcolm about the choices he made. There’s always regrets left, but if the full balance of it is positive, then you hold on to it. For Malcolm, the presence of Bumpy in his life [was] a positive.”
To learn more about Malcolm X’s complicated relationship with The Nation of Islam and final episode of Godfather of Harlem, check out the full interview in the video above.