New York City was a drug dealers paradise in the 1970’s – if you didn’t mind the occasional killing. Before they were arrested on various charges, Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas were a big part of the Harlem drug scene, controlling most of the heroine traffic in New York’s black neighborhoods. Now, thirty years later, both men are the subject of movies that chronicle their lives as drug kingpins. Nicky Barnes stars in the interview-oriented documentary, “Mr. Untouchable,” directed by Marc Levin. Frank Lucas’ life is sensationalized in the big-budget Hollywood movie, “American Gangster,” starring Oscar winners Denzel Washington (as Frank Lucas) and Russell Crowe, directed by the Oscar-nominated director Ridley Scott.
Barnes’ movie was released a week before Lucas’ account (based on a true story) and will precede “American Gangster” in DVD format as well, since “American Gangster” has seen its theatre stay lengthened by multiple award nominations (Ruby Dee won a Screen Actors Guild Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role and the film has been nominated for two Academy Awards).
Although both films document the heyday of two of Harlem’s most famous and ruthless “businessmen,” Levin captures Barnes’ arrogance and total lack of remorse for his role in flooding New York – through his Italian connections and suppliers – with heroine during the 1970’s. Known for making the social pages during his reign, Barnes, “Mr. Untouchable,” coldly recounts how he did business and how he turned state’s evidence against most of his associates and entered the federal witness protection program. He even mentions his rival, Frank Lucas, mocking Lucas’ lack of education and southern mannerisms.
“American Gangster” is a Ridley Scott tour-de-force, with Denzel Washington gliding from deal to deal, depicting Frank Lucas as an intelligent, creative, practical man (barely mentioning Lucas’ lack of education) with a flare for the drug trade. More of a “boutique” heroine supplier, Lucas’ product became legendary as pure grade heroine with Lucas’ own trademark packaging and a testament to Lucas’ entrepreneurial creativity – he bypassed the Italian suppliers by shipping the heroine straight from Vietnam by way of military casket, what would be referred to as the “cadaver connection.” Seen by some as glamorizing the life of a drug dealer, “American Gangster” shows Lucas also as a seemingly remorseless man who turned state’s evidence to get less prison time.
“Mr. Untouchable” and “American Gangster” are both great films in their respective genres. Both films also make the point of their respective subjects ultimate capture and incarceration by the authorities, albeit as storyline afterthoughts. In “Mr. Untouchable,” Marc Levin has captured the coldness of man whose entire purpose is simply to turn a dollar. In “American Gangster,” Ridley Scott gives us a more glitzy version of the same story, but from a man with a different, less flashy style of plying his product. And in the end, as they both told Mark Jacobson in an interview with New York Magazine, they were just two men doing business.
Perhaps one thing should be noted about both these accounts. “Mr. Untouchable” is told from the perspective of man known for his braggadocio. “American Gangster” is a film based on true story. The Federal Bureau of Investigation deny that a “cadaver connection” ever existed and Frank Lucas never made a solo deal with an Asian druglord.
A.O. Scott, “Mr. Untouchable,” NYTimes.com
Mark Jacobson, “Lords of Dopetown,” NYMag.com
Jake Coyle, “Fabrications plague ‘American Gangster'”, Associated Press