During the seven seasons it ran, Kurt Sutter’s Sons of Anarchy was FX Network’s most successful drama series in the history of the network. For the spin-off series Mayans M.C., Sutter infused significant Latino nuances into this latest project by focusing on the Mayans Motorcyle Club, the Chicano rivals-turned-allies of the title group of his prior show.
J.D. Pardo plays Ezekiel “EZ” Reyes, the lead character who is a prospect in the Mayans M.C. charter on the California/Mexico border and was drawn into gang life after a violent incident landed the hyper-intelligent college student in jail. Authenticity has always been a hallmark of Sutter’s work and for this current series, the approach has been no different.
The Jersey native tapped Elgin James as a co-creator and co-executive producer of Mayans, in addition to being a writer and directing one episode. A fellow filmmaker and former hardcore punk musician and member of Friends Stand United (FSU), a Boston, Massachusetts area group classified by several law enforcement agencies as a gang, James is well familiar with the violent world that Mayans M.C. inhabits.
“Growing up surrounded by violence—first being the victim of it and then the aggressor—I had always not wanted to tell these stories. I know that’s what people had wanted from me when I first came here. I jumped at the chance to sit down with Kurt and pick his brain, because he’s a master of storytelling and an icon. We started talking about the roots of violence and how so much of it comes from fear,” James explained. “I know much of it came out of fear for me growing up as a really scared kid terrified of the world. All you want to do is feel safe in your life. When you grow up in certain households and situations, that’s not an option. I found a bunch of other kids that had been thrown away too and we became each other’s safety net. So if you had a problem, it wouldn’t be your problem but it would also become my problem. So you wouldn’t have to worry about it. And vice versa.”
James’ time with FSU was complicated. His group wound up targeting violent white power skinheads from the Boston hardcore scene and robbing drug dealers and then giving half the money to local charities before FSU amicably split apart. While most members drifted into motorcycle gangs, James and some others focused on more law-abiding pursuits that included setting up scholarships at local universities in the names of deceased FSU brethren and playing benefit concerts for charities reflecting hardcore punk culture (teen homelessness, suicide prevention, orphanages, anti-handgun violence).
Along the way, James delved into filmmaking, eventually being named a fellow at the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in 2008. The following year, he shot his autobiographical indie film project, Little Birds, which was based on him and a friend leaving their small towns to join a Boston-area gang. While Justin Timberlake was originally cast to play James, the filmmaker instead changed the leads to a pair of 15-year-old girls (Juno Temple and Kay Panabaker) as James was concerned about the film glamorizing the violent lifestyle he had moved on from.
That same year, James was arrested by the FBI for an incident that occurred four years prior. He was charged with a criminal complaint of federal attempted extortion filed in Chicago. James was sentenced to one year and one day of prison on March 8, 2011. More than 60 letters of support were submitted on James’ behalf including letters from actors Ed Harris and Robert Redford, who James has credited with helping him turn his life around.
The aspiring filmmaker served his sentence and was released from U.S. federal prison on March 16, 2012. It was an eye-opening experience that shaped his future work as a writer.
“Going to prison, I realized just how awful human beings are. As great as we are, we’re just as awful. I was still wrestling with that and learning how not to take that back into the world,” he said. “I felt so much shame because I always thought that it was just me and the world that I grew up in—what had happened to me and what I had done as an adult. I thought the rest of the world wasn’t so like that and then, having spent time moving out here—I knew there was more that I had to explore about violence and all these things.”
While there is destructive behavior aplenty in Mayans M.C., the writing also reflects a sense of being the other and characters trying to find a better way of life for their families and loved ones. Even if that means making questionable moral choices. It’s something James readily acknowledges.
“Coming out of the gate and in a proud way, this is a show about and for Latinos. What I always say to everyone is this is for everyone who has ever felt like an outsider and feels like things are going against them,” he said. “When you look at the writers, artists and actors that we have, they come from a world where there is a cycle of poverty, violence and incarceration. It’s the same message I try to get across in everything I do. We’re all damaged while trying to do the best we can and trying to love the people that we love. We’re all ugly and damaged but beautiful inside regardless of how much melanin we may have in our skin or what gender we may be.”
Mayans M.C. airs on Monday nights on the FX network.