Director Bill Duke's valentine to Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, the king of the Harlem numbers racket back in the 1930s, is called Hoodlum. But that hardly seems appropriate. If Duke and his backers at United Artists Pictures wanted to remain true to the spirit of the piece, they would have titled it Robin Hood Goes Uptown or The Saint of Lennox Avenue or, for those of a more political bent, perhaps Homicide: The Shining Path to Economic Self-Determination.
Whatever it's called, Hoodlum isn't just another glamorized picture of black gangster life. Oh, it's stuffed with the usual array of sharp suits, vintage hats and classic automobiles, the usual dash through the Cotton Club and the usual crooked Irish cop with a taste for skull-breaking. But the real message of the picture is that the numbers game--an illegal daily lottery that used to take in a hundred grand a day in nickels and dimes--in the midst of the Depression, black Harlem's "only homegrown business" and thus should have been nurtured to the hilt, without interference from outsiders. This is a little like saying, in the Nineties, that because unemployment rates always strike the inner city hardest, everyone might as well pitch in and support the local crack industry. From these acorns do great oaks grow.
Anyway, even if you swallow Hoodlum's pitch that Bumpy Johnson was just another guy trying to make good ("The white man ain't left me nothin' but the underworld," he announces) or the notion that he brought prosperity to the neighborhood, it is still a plodding and listless two hours in which you see every dramatic move coming two reels away, every one of them drenched in neighborhood folklore and romantic exaggeration.
The big conflict at the heart of Chris Brancuso's meandering script is a tooth-and-nail turf war between our man Bumpy (played with grave bravado by Laurence Fishburne) and the downtown mob chieftain Dutch Schultz (played as a crude, grimy bigot by Tim Roth). When, in 1934, the Dutchman decides to move in on the uptown numbers racket, he's resisted by the reigning matriarch of the game, the overdressed, French-spouting Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson), aka the Queen of Policy. But the Queen doesn't quite have the goods to win. It takes her protege Bumpy, fresh out of Sing Sing and conversant in chess, poetry and large-caliber handguns, to chase Schultz out of the 'hood.
Eventually, his ally in this is none other than the mobster's mobster, Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia), a suave deep thinker who apparently understood early in his career the value of racial and ethnic networking.
There's an awful lot of gunfire and carnage here, much of it lifted, stylistically, straight out of the Godfather films. Duke (A Rage in Harlem) even throws in another one of those passage-of-time montages, complete with swirling newspaper headlines and falling, bloodied bodies, to chronicle the cruel tedium of gang warfare. In the end, Hoodlum tries to tell us it was the Bumpy Johnson dispute that brought Dutch Schultz to his untimely end in a New Jersey chophouse.
That's not the only suspicious claim. If we can believe the rest of this myth-making, the crusading prosecutor Thomas Dewey (William Atherton), later a presidential candidate, was on the take from Luciano, while Bumpy Johnson was a noble, courageous character who had nothing but the best interests of the people at heart--Malcolm X with a stack of policy sheets and a Smith & Wesson stuffed in his back pocket. At one point we find him flinging cash and coins to the hungry, tattered masses from the back of a freshly hijacked truck. Later, he's kissing babies at a Christmas party he's thrown for the neighborhood. Good old Bumpy.
This is by no means the first time a gangster movie has romanticized The Life--that's been going on since Jimmy Cagney went up to the big house--but facts don't quite confirm this glowing portrait of Bumpy-as-Robin Hood. By most other accounts, journalistic and historical, he was a dedicated street hustler with an authentic taste for exploitation and blood: He's grown into a demigod only with the passage of time, the retelling of anecdote and, perhaps, a desire to manufacture heroes out of thin air.
Fishburne looks vaguely uncomfortable with the whole prospect. He has recently played a famous brute (Ike Turner in What's Love Got to Do With It?) and a classic tragic hero in Othello, but he doesn't seem all that happy being canonized as the avenging angel of Harlem.
The supporting players have an otherworldly air, too. In contrast to the neurotic, explosive Dutch Schultz that Dustin Hoffman gave us in Billy Bathgate, Roth's is far less compelling: The Englishman cackles and leers with gusto, and he does a nice piece of business slobbering over an apple in a meeting with New York crime bosses. But he seems most concerned with maintaining the Bronx snarl he developed for this movie with the help of a dialogue coach.
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Tyson is way over the top as the Queen, and Vanessa Williams, the Obligatory Girlfriend, doesn't get much room to maneuver in the part of a do-gooder who disapproves of her man's adventures in crime. Of course, there's never much future in delivering lines like "You used to be a human being."
There used to be a gene for making good gangster movies.
Screenplay by Chris Brancuso. Directed by Bill Duke. With Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Vanessa Williams, Cicely Tyson and Andy Garcia.