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Like a real-life version of Scarface, Goodfellas, or Carlito's Way, Marc Levin's new documentary, Mr. Untouchable, hits you hard but is entertaining the whole way through. The shadowy underworld of gangsters and drug dealers has long proved a fascinating subject, and Levin's film smartly plays on the romanticism of outlaws as it details the life and times of Nicky Barnes. A biopic of sorts, Mr. Untouchable focuses on the notorious heroin kingpin of 1970s Harlem, recounting his life story through interviews with assistant district attorneys, New York police officers, Drug Enforcement Agency operatives, federal informants, Barnes' ex-wife, and his former associates. After being sentenced to life in prison in the early 1980s Barnes flipped to testify against other criminal elements, so Levin notes that the location where the film's interviews were shot was secret - a contract on Barnes' head still exists. Although it doesn't speak well for the former heroin lord's safety that Levin somehow managed to find Barnes in the Witness Protection Program, his story - told with voice distortion effects and culled from interviews showing him from the neck down only - is told in his own words.
Nicky Barnes is very fond of quoting Machiavelli, an attribute that is perhaps a bit clichéd for someone in his profession, but appropriate all the same. As is the case with many criminals, he grew up in a troubled family; one of his earliest violent acts was to try to shoot his father (the gun wasn't loaded) and from there went on to emulate and surpass his role models, becoming a revolutionary drug lord. Barnes is notable in part because of his rise to power in Harlem, which occurred during a dark time in New York's record of public safety and was owed in part to his practice of working closely with the Mafia, something very uncommon for a black man to do at the time. If his memories and the archival footage are to be believed, Barnes lived the life of a blaxploitation character, and his supporting cast played their roles accordingly. He pushed drugs using a business model, assembling a seven-man "council" with a "mystical dynamic." This was street capitalism at its finest and Barnes became a superstar of the 'hood even as he supplied the means for it to destroy itself. When asked by Levin if he was really a tool of the white man, Barnes hesitates before saying, in a way that shows he has given some thought to the issue, "I can't answer that." Levin's direct question isn't the first time the subject comes up, although in a different form, as the police and prosecution hammers home the point again and again that he was actually a detriment to the very community he claimed to care about.
David Breitbart, Barnes' former lawyer is one of the many supporting cast members who is responsible for the nickname "Mr. Untouchable," which was given to Barnes because of his longstanding ability to beat any rap. Breitbart recounts how on one occasion, after beating a murder charge, Barnes told him that he would be made an "honorary black man," to which Breitbart replied, "I thought you already made me an honorary nigga - what's the difference?" "We don't hang with niggas," said Barnes. Adding to his myth, on another occasion one of Barnes' council members tells a story of an addict nicknamed Claw, a junkie that Barnes would use as a quality tester to determine a particular batch of heroin's potency. Archival footage of Claw shows a man who clearly earned his name - his arm, a truly a disturbing image, had swollen to Elephant Man-proportions from infection. It's stories like these from the actual players that make this film stand out.
Of course, almost as if a script had been written for him, Barnes' luck eventually ran out and his star eventually faded. Rats, wiretaps, revenge, jealousy, drugs, women - all of the usual suspects contributed to the end of his gangster reign. And not without taking people down with him; many of those interviewed either did their own bid or are still serving time in prison. While Levin never really takes a moral stance with the film, instead content to let the colorful characters tell their stories, there are moments where Mr. Untouchable feels slightly exploitive. When Barnes himself, now probably living some sad-sack life in Arizona, recounts the fast-paced, high-stakes life of murder and drug dealing with nostalgia instead of remorse, one can't help but think he's mugging for the cameras a bit. And overall, the film is tilted slightly towards the outlandish no-limit soldier stories of the gangsters and cops playing gangster, taking liberties with a few pinches of glamour sprinkled onto the criminal lifestyle.
All told, with Mr. Untouchable Levin does a commendable job of piecing together a decades-old story, and it is also worth noting that the video footage is backed by a capable original score from DJ Hi-Tek. While it does pander to some of the "true crime stories" stereotypes of cable television, Mr. Untouchable is an exciting and incredibly entertaining new documentary that ultimately allows one to make his or her own moral judgments about one of the more sordid versions of the American dream. SEE ALSO: www.mruntouchablemovie.com
Jonah Flicker writes, lives, drinks, eats, and consumes music in New York, via Los Angeles. He once received a fortune in a fortune cookie that stated the following: "Soon, a visitor shall delight you." He's still waiting.
See other articles by Jonah Flicker.
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