EmptyWhat all this nostalgia is about for 1970s Harlem drug lords is hard to say, but Universal will release "American Gangster," a fictionalized portrait of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas, just days after Magnolia comes out with "Mr. Untouchable," Marc Levin's documentary on the original black Godfather, Nicky Barnes, from that same era. Barnes himself, now in the Witness Protection Program, tells his story, assisted by a talking-heads squad of lawyers, DEA agents, informants, journalists, hustlers, his ex-wife and members of Barnes' drug council, whom he ratted out after he was sent to prison.
It's undeniably fascinating, but you might want to take a shower after hanging out with this unsavory bunch. Boxoffice looks weak, with possibly better results in DVD and cable.
The problem is that Levin provides no real point of view. Indeed, he seems much too taken with all the surface gloss and displays little interest in the socioeconomic background that gave the rise to this particularly odious Mr. Big. Levin perhaps can claim that he lets people hang themselves with their own words. And ironies like the '70s black youth who sees Barnes, not Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson, as his "hero" are duly noted, then the movie moves on.
The real irony is that it was not a cop, informer or DOJ attorney who tripped up Barnes but a magazine article. When the New York Times put Barnes on its magazine cover in 1977, dressed like a superstar, with the headline "Mister Untouchable," he was a sitting duck. President Carter himself ordered the all-out effort to change his wardrobe to prison stripes.
Barnes and his fellow gangsters all read Machiavelli's "The Prince" from cover to cover while serving prison stints in the late '60s and absorbed that system to power. It worked for a while, though the film is light on details. Eventually, Barnes -- an ex-junkie, as were many of his lieutenants -- wallowed in jewelry, clothes, women and champagne as heroin brought in $72 million annually. The Italian Mafia trained and trusted him. In turn, Barnes modeled his organization along traditional Mafia lines, creating his own black crime family known as the Council.
Levin shot interviews with Barnes for several days in an undisclosed location. (He has a $1 million contract out on his life.) His face is in shadows, and the camera mostly focuses on his hands, featuring a gold watch and one large diamond ring. On the table are props: champagne in one shot, a single bullet in another and a pile of money or (probably fake) heroin in others.
Those few members not incarcerated for life, which includes ex-wife Thelma Grant and Council member "Jazz" Hayden, tell their versions of the story of crime, punishment and revenge. The theme from "Superfly" and other appropriate music of the era plays in the background. Usage of archival footage is mostly unimaginative, and the repetition of photos further testifies to the film's visual dullness.
Key points pass by too quickly. That these gangsters called themselves Muslims is not further explored. Nor is Barnes' inability to answer whether he was a tool for white men. Jazz makes the outrageous claim that when the Barnes family handed out money or food to the community, "these guys cared about Harlem." What they cared about was enslaving the community to their drugs.
HDNet Films in association with Damon Dash Enterprises and Blowback Prods.
Director: Marc Levin
Producers: Mary-Jane Robinson, Alex Gibney, Jason Kliot, Joanna Vicente
Executive producers: Todd Wagner, Mark Cuban
Director of photography: Henry Adebonojo
Editors: Emir Lewis, Daniel Praid
Running time -- 90 minutes
MPAA rating: R