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November 1, 2007

When Kingpins Collide

Searching for "the real Harlem" in American Gangster and Mr. Untouchable

Harlem globetrotter: Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas in American Gangster (Photo: Universal Pictures)

The first time Ridley Scott brought a camera to New York, in 1960, he was an art school brat coasting in on a traveling scholarship. When he wasn't syncing rushes for Robert Drew and schlepping lunch to D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, he would go shooting everywhere that was nowhere: Coney Island. The Bowery. Harlem. Especially Harlem.

"I knew New York really well," said Scott, 69, who later spent more than a decade as a commercial and television director in the States and the UK before breaking into features in the late '70s. "Who did what, how they dressed. That's why you get that very reigned-in view: If people do a film about the '60s and '70s, they all think it was like The Beatles. It wasn't like that; there wasn't that kind of money in the streets. It was only the [most elite] groups that might have been gangsters. It was much shabbier, so I reigned it in. That's what feels so real about it. Harlem was really, really shabby. Beautiful brownstones falling apart."

In the end, though, "real" is anyone's guess when it comes to American Gangster, Scott's chronicle of Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas. Along with its unwitting documentary companion Mr. Untouchable (released last week in New York), about Lucas's flamboyant, putative archenemy Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, Gangster exposes the foundations of urban mythmaking. Adapted by Steven Zaillian from a New York Magazine article by Mark Jacobson, the film parallels the quests of Lucas (Denzel Washington) and his law enforcement nemesis Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) as singularly obsessed professionals striving for legitimacy and power in 1970s New York. It's among the most dogeared conventions in the world -- the shared DNA of cops and criminals -- yet as imagined by Scott, the face-off emphasizes an even more complex heritage; taken together, the films distill the concept of trust one level further than suspension of disbelief. They virtually demand reconciliation.

And in whatever labyrinthine equation one might develop to help square them, Harlem is the key variable.

"People don't understand why people so smart -- when you're a drug dealer -- would risk it all by buying nice clothes and cars and advertising that you're hustling," said Harlem native Damon Dash, the hip-hop mogul who co-produced Mr. Untouchable. "It's just because of Harlem. It was a big party every day, and you did whatever you had to do to be relevant. It was like being bigger than a movie star."

Perhaps with that in mind, each film relegates its antihero's cosmic rival to the narrative fringe: Lucas as a North Carolina-raised "country boy" in Mr. Untouchable; Barnes as a moody, half-wit clown (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.) who impales himself on the spotlight in American Gangster. Their coexistence is more fluke than phenomenon, and neither wields enough influence in the other's business to warrant much more than exaggerated annoyance. Yet as developed by Scott and Zaillian, Lucas's concept of ownership extends as far as the American dream, which he imports to Harlem as readily as the pure heroin he infamously shipped via coffins of US soldiers flown home from Vietnam. (And even that legend was debated after Jacobson immortalized it.) It's one of Gangster's few interlocking correlations with Mr. Untouchable, whose subject -- a recovered addict himself -- couldn't outlast his hunger for women, honor and celebrity.

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"Honestly, that was one of the things that interested me in Frank's story," Zaillian told The Reeler during a recent press day in New York. "This was a guy who was sort of a ghost in Harlem, who was controlling so much of it -- unlike a more public figure like Nicky Barnes. Frank was always in the background; he was much more quiet about his position. That was the big difference. Even though we've got this movie coming out, nobody's making a documentary about Frank. There probably wouldn't be enough footage of him."

Technically there wasn't even enough footage of Barnes to complete Mr. Untouchable before director Marc Levin and producer Mary-Jane Robinson locked down 48 hours' worth of interviews in August 2006. Unearthed from the Witness Protection Program after a merciless bout of snitching in 1981 commuted his prison term for drug trafficking to a mere 22 years, Barnes recounts his rise and fall from the shadows of an "undisclosed location." Combined with input from former members of his "Council" (some of whose voices all but drip with bitterness over penitentiary phone lines), even his most humane ambition -- serving Harlem -- shares psychic space with unfathomable malignance. "Forgive them, Lord, for they know not who they fucketh with," he paraphrases in conclusion. "But it shouldn't have been me."

So poisonous is Barnes's relationship with his old community, where his name is still synonymous with "rat," that it complicated his commentary's inclusion in Mr. Untouchable. "Some of the people had agreed to be in the film because Nicky was not in the film," said Levin, who had edited most of the movie by the time the interview came through. "When Mary-Jane and I came back and called some of these people and said, 'You're not going to believe who we just spent the weekend with,' the phones dropped out of their hands. And when they did recover, they weren't too happy." Levin and Robinson faced another round of discussions with many of the Harlem interviewees, whose regard for the filmmakers quickly soured. "We weren't betraying any trust," Levin insisted. "We honestly thought the film wasn't going to have Nicky in it, but how could we say no? And how could we not incorporate this material?"

Scott, however, had the equivalent of a folk hero on his hands: a self-made, subcultural entrepreneur in the tradition of Vito Corleone or Tony Montana; fodder for an epic New York crime saga echoing Prince of the City or GoodFellas. With one glaring exception, of course.

"I can say for one, of all those films you mentioned, there are no black people in any of them," Washington said. "So for one, this is a Harlem story. It's about a guy who's a kingpin -- a different kingpin, but the situation is basically the same. They're obviously different movies, but the business was the same if it's based on the heroin business. There is, to a certain degree, a genre and things that are similar in those kinds of films. But this one in particular was a guy from uptown."

(Photo: Magnolia Pictures)

Moreover, it was a legacy from uptown, one that a defiant Lucas fears was compromised by the suggestion that he, too, snitched to save himself from life in prison. "Richie Roberts said that was the only true thing in [Gangster]," Robinson told me. "They flipped Frank in five minutes." Levin was even more critical. "The character is nothing like Frank Lucas," he said. "It takes from Nicky, it takes from Frank Matthews and others. It creates this sort of saint gangster -- it's almost not a real character."

The same goes for Mr. Untouchable to some degree. I asked Dash about Scott's allusion to "the real Harlem" as compared to Levin's film; what did he think of Gangster's portrayal of Harlem's own Nicky Barnes in particular?

"After seeing this?" he asked. "What did you think?"

"Well," I replied, "if we take Mr. Untouchable purely at face value, then it's probably unfair."

"There you go," he said. "One's a movie, one's a documentary. Who are you going to believe?"

"So why do you think American Gangster portrayed him so far off?"

"It's a movie, and a movie's a fantasy. That's the fantasy Harlem. This is the real Harlem."

"But if this is the real Harlem, then why is Frank Lucas reduced to little more than a passing mention? A 'country bumpkin'?"

"Look," Dash said, "the way I found out about Frank Lucas was by reading about him in [a magazine]. That was fluff; this is the real Harlem. ... This is about a product of Harlem. Frank Lucas was not a product of Harlem. I think Frank Lucas was a product of Frank Lucas. Nicky Barnes was what Harlem made him be."

Maybe, but will it even matter as of Friday, when each enters the eternity of cinematic myth? Is Scott's memory more sincere than his motivation, and will audiences explore the moral distortions beyond those explicit in the mindsets of cop and kingpin? Can the enduring duel of violence and enterprise that is among the most sophisticated ambiguities of the hip-hop generation wield redemption for Harlem's bleakest era?

"We can't face that directly -- it's hard," Levin said. "But it's easier through popular culture to kind of intuit, 'Yeah, these are gangsters. They're bad guys -- but they're us. This is who we are.' "



Comments (1)

Thanks, this was a great linking of the stories of Lucas and Barnes that I needed to understand better.

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