An American gangster in his own right, Leroy "Nicky" Barnes was, for a time in the 1970s, Harlem's big boss man. He was variously referred to as "a black Godfather" and "the Al Capone of Harlem," his associates recall in Mr. Untouchable, the documentary about Barnes' rise and fall. The film arrives close to the Hollywood release of Ridley Scott's American Gangster, featuring Denzel Washington as another Harlem "gentleman dealer" and Barnes' rival Frank Lucas.
Barnes rose from addiction to become Harlem's heroin kingpin. With the help of a trusted, close-knit cadre of money launderers and street dealers, Barnes lived what has since become the fever dream of thuggery embraced by Hollywood movie studios and gangsta rappers: flash suits, shopaholic wife, pretty mistress, public adoration and at one unbelievable juncture in his career, even a magazine cover.
Director Marc Levin (Protocols of Zion), cribbing a page from Martin Scorsese, offers a suitably flashy doc amped to blasting period pop tunes including the ubiquitous Curtis Mayfield tune "Pusher Man." In the mix are the cohorts, ex-wives and NYPD cops who aided and pursued Barnes.
Even the latter detectives and prosecutors attest to Barnes' talent as a shrewd businessman able to strike deals even with the clannish Italian mob and streamline his business by buying directly from the Italians and selling on the street, removing the middleman. Barnes' tactics were the stuff of Brian De Palma cinematic fantasy; he kept his female drug cutters from stealing his smack by having them work naked. When he wanted privacy from police wiretaps, Barnes flipped on the blender.
A man of epic contradictions, in between rendering Harlem's underclass drug-addicted zombies, Barnes boosted his King of New York public image by staging neighborhood festivals and handing out turkeys to the needy on holidays. Levin's film does little to counter this Robin Hood vision of Barnes.
To his credit, Levin has gained remarkable access to an array of ex-cons, ex-wives, cops and lawyers who witnessed Barnes' behavior firsthand. It is clear many of Barnes' criminal cohorts, despite going on to serve double-digit prison terms, also enjoy recounting the tales of their glory days and living for a moment in a more vividly tinted past.
But Levin's portrait of Barnes also sometimes verges on hagiography, playing as much into thug-luxe glamour as Hollywood or Barnes himself, and to that end, overplaying pop tunes matched to action. Especially egregious is a cheeseball pairing of Marvin Gaye's "Sexual Healing" as the film discusses Barnes' many lady loves.
Part of the film's mythologizing tone is no doubt derived from the man himself, interviewed in shadow with only a diamond ring the size of Paris Hilton's head. Speaking from his current purgatory in witness protection, where he cools his jets despite a $1 million dollar bounty on his head, Barnes recounts his view of drug-dealing as just another expression of the American dream. Repentance is clearly not his strong suit. As he recently told the New York Times of his criminal glory days: "I miss it. There was glamour, money, influence, attractive women."
As the '70s chugged along, the turf wars and governmental attention to the drug lords intensified. Barnes became one of the most wanted criminals in Richard Nixon's and later Jimmy Carter's administration, especially after appearing in a New York Times magazine cover story boastfully tagged "Mr. Untouchable."
The salad days inevitably came to an end when Barnes was sentenced to prison. But as a force to be reckoned with even from behind bars, Barnes turned informant to get back at the heirs to his drug kingdom, two of whom were brash enough to take up with Barnes' wife and girlfriend. After 21 years in lockup, Barnes in 1998 entered the witness-protection program.
Levin's fairly idealized account of Barnes' criminal empire ends on an odd note of nostalgia. Even the hardened criminals his heroin empire inured to contract killings, and a local addict known as the Claw for his drug-bloated arm, eventually shook their heads in distress at the arrival of crack on the scene.
Even drug dealers apparently have their own version of the good old days.