Saturday, February 09, 2008
When it comes to putting true-life stories on screen, Hollywood likes to embellish. That's no surprise. However, in the case of Ridley Scott's AMERICAN GANGSTER, there may actually be more embellishment than fact, as the Associated Press has reported. In addition, some DEA agents were so angry with the way they were presented in the film that they sued. Also unhappy were the three undercover Newark police officers who actually did the street work that brought down Frank Lucas' empire. Lucas, played by Denzel Washington in the film, was already in custody by the time prosecutor Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) was brought in to help build an indictment against him.
But Hollywood is Hollywood, and if you want a more accurate look at that era and the Harlem heroin empire, check out Marc Levin's excellent documentary MR. UNTOUCHABLE, just out on DVD. It's the story of Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, the *real* heroin kingpin of Harlem in the 1970s. Like Lucas, Barnes eventually turned state's evidence and testified against his former partners, leading to dozens - if not hundreds - of convictions.
Barnes is now in the Witness Protection Program, but Levin and co-producer Mary-Jane Robinson tracked him down and got him to agree to sit for a series of interviews (his face is concealed and his voice slightly distorted when he's on screen). It's buttressed with a series of extensive interviews with former Barnes colleagues and the law enforcement officers who eventually brought him down and got him to turn. All point to Barnes' appearance on the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1977 (above right) as the act that precipitated his downfall. Worried that the Times would use a mugshot of him (above left) to illustrate the story, Barnes agreed to pose for a Times photographer. When President Jimmy Carter saw the story that Sunday, he placed a call to U.S. Attorney General Griffen Bell. At 8 a.m. the next morning Bell informed the New York Attorney General's Office that Barnes had just become their No. 1 priority.
Also worth checking out are the DVD's many supplementary interviews and features, including a videotaped conference call - from Levin's office - between Barnes and Lucas.