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Two Gangster Films Shed Light on 70s Drug World in New York


Two films now showing in movie theaters in the United States focus on the rise and fall of two African-American druglords in the 1970s and 80s. "American Gangster" is a fictionalized account of kingpin Frank Lucas, while "Mr. Untouchable" is a documentary on drug dealer Nicky Barnes. Both chronicle drug abuse at its peak in America. VOA's Penelope Poulou has more.

"American Gangster" is based on a true story and presents Frank Lucas as an elegant man and an innovative entrepreneur. He is a loving husband and son, but also the most ruthless drug lord in 1970s New York. Academy Award winning actor Denzel Washington plays Lucas."He was on the top of his game," says Denzel Washington. "He ran everything from river to river. "

The film depicts extensive police corruption during that time, with some cops getting their cut from drug dealers. But real-life policeman Richie Roberts stayed clean. The film shows Many of his fellow cops scoffing at him for returning a million dollars in unmarked cash.

This is an interesting film because it throws light on the understated power of an African-American mobster who ran his business as effectively and professionally as any successful CEO would today. Denzel Washington offers a solid performance as the sleek, soft spoken but deadly Frank Lucas. Russell Crowe interprets Richie Roberts as a worn out cop, a pariah among his peers, who doggedly seeks justice. Director Ridley Scott's film is more a Hollywood corporate thriller than a visceral gangster movie. But his cinematography, with its shady and grainy colors, remind us of the 70s. The film is overall good but not great.

On the other hand, the independent documentary "Mr. Untouchable" by director Mark Levin brings the drug world of the 1970s alive. Drug lord Nicky Barnes, who has been under the witness protection program since 1986, comes out of hiding to offer a rare interview about his role in the 1970s heroin trafficking. A string of accounts by drug dealers, drug users, policemen, DEA agents and reporters corroborates his story. "Mr. Untouchable" presents Nicky Barnes and not Frank Lucas as the kingpin of Harlem during those times.

One of the people who offer accounts of Nicky Barnes in the documentary says " All roads went to Harlem and all roads went to Nicky Barnes in those days…" Another one describes him as "this big Kunta Kinte in Harlem... this Al Capone of Harlem."

In "Mr. Untouchable," Barnes is presented as a man who loved the limelight. There was nothing subtle about him. His clothes, his jewelry, his lifestyle all made a statement about his drug enterprise. Like in the "American Gangster," the cops appear largely corrupt and the people of Harlem are depicted as grateful to their "black godfather."

A Harlem woman remembers those days. She says, "everybody was eating, everybody was riding, everybody was wearing nice clothes. I'm not trying to glorify what he did but he was just there on time."

The documentary shows that Nicky Barnes's downfall was his excessive visibility. In the mid 70s, New York Times reporter Fred Ferreti wrote an article calling him "Mr. Untouchable" because up until that point he had consistently escaped the law. But in 1978 Barnes was arrested, and eventually turned in his associates in order to avoid a life sentence. Frank Lucas also had his sentence shortened by helping Richie Roberts crack down on crooked cops. Both movies portray the two drug dealers as living life to the fullest and leaving their mark on society. Mark Levin does a better job by using great music and compelling footage. And although both filmmakers claim that their movies do not glorify these gangsters, in essence they do.