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There's a moment in Marc Levin's ferocious new documentary, Mr
Untouchable, when your heart just breaks. Moments after winning game
seven of the World Series, a news reporter asked a young African
American boy if his hero was the series' MVP, Reggie Jackson. The child
responded, no it was Nicky Barnes.
Nicky Barnes, who the New York Times nicknamed "Mr Untouchable" in 1977, was New York's most successful heroine kingpin. Levin's documentary chronicles the lavish life of the millionaire, covering his battle against addiction, his rise to power and his ultimate downfall.
Filled with love, lust, power and revenge, Barnes story is an epic tale and Levin cuts right to the heart of this monstrous drug lord's true life narrative with a sense of style and pizazz fitting of the supercilious gangster. With a fantastic soundtrack and powerful imagery, Levin makes what could have been a bad episode of cops a fully cinematic experience.
Of course it helps to get a hold of the man himself, Nicky Barnes, now under a different alias living under the witness protection program. While all of Barnes cohorts tell fascinating tales about the kingpin, there is something extraordinary about seeing the first photographed imagery of Barnes since his release from prison.
Even today, a reformed man, his gigantic ego still overshadows his personality. It is easy to see how Barnes became such a success, his personality is overwhelmingly charming, despite his cut throat reputation and holier than thou attitude.
The documentary is incredibly well structured. Early in the film Levin lets you become attached to Nicky Barnes the person. As he makes his turn from junkie to kingpin, you can't help but feel caught up in his success, no matter how dastardly his deeds were. Not only was Barnes the coolest cat in Harlem, he also did good will for the community he was destroying. While he was filling the streets with junkies, he was also handing out turkeys to the poor during Thanksgiving. Hypocritical? Maybe, but it is cinematically effective.
Once you're attached to Nicky Barnes, Levin quickly destroys him, showing the dark side of the drug lord and taking away his glitz and glamor piece by piece, until there is literally nothing left of the man that used to be untouchable. Mr. Untouchable is thorough and informative, yet Levin manages to transcend the confines of the genre crafting a documentary that is extremely potent and undeniably entertaining too.
The most powerful black drug kingpin in New York City history, Nicky
Barnes came from humble beginnings to make himself and his comrades
rich beyond their wildest dreams, ultimately reaching national infamy
in 1977 when the New York Times put him on the front cover of their
In organized crime, there is a theory called ethnic succession that explains how the Italians took over criminal enterprise from the Irish. For decades there was speculation that the black community would take over from the Italians. For the most part, this has failed to materialize, with black gangs being largely unprofessional and unorganized. Nicky Barnes and his organization is the big exception.
Everything I know about Barnes I learned from this documentary, which does a great job of explaining his place in history and how he was targeted by law enforcement. Some interesting points are made. Certainly he deserved to be targeted. But was it a real conspiracy?
This film was very well done. I enjoyed not only the story line,
characters and authenticity, but the cinematography was fantastic! If
you're looking for a movie experience that will leave you thinking,
this is the one.
The real life story of drug lord Nicky Barnes is fascinating and truly an eye opener. It takes a look into the city of New York in the 70's from a criminal view point.
The acting in this film was top notch & very believable. Great work from many "unknowns". I would recommend this film to all types of movie lovers.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The real star of the film is Barnes, who shines in his interviews: he's
menacing but charming, erudite but ruthless. He matter of factly
discourses on the 'terminate or be terminated' aspect of the drug
trade. Another aspect of this documentary is that it NEVER condescends,
with silly anti-drug messages. It allows Barnes to be see, good and
bad, and let the viewer decide if he's a hero, a thug, or both.
Interestingly, many negative reviews of the film excoriate it for
exactly this excellent tack. Brain dead moralism, it seems, never goes
out of fashion for some wannabe critics. What these critics never seem
to attack is the outrageous waste of taxpayer money that is the
infamously failed Drug War. If the stuff were not illegal, guys like
Barnes would not exist. It's the illegality, in the face of a high
demand, that causes the problem; not to mention the Federal
government's own involvement in propping up the drug trade in Third
World Countries as an economic force against, first, communism, and,
now, Islamofascism. The real thugs are not the Barneses of the world,
who were just slick operators in a system they inherited, but the
framers of the system that has kept a majority of black and other
minority youth from realizing their full potential.
And, the thing is, if one heads into this documentary with no knowledge of the drug trade, and an open mind, one will come away thinking how heinous and narrow-minded the Feds are, because this film relentlessly shows these flaws in the often smug cops who, it's obvious, would much rather have been Barnes than convict him. Any work of art that can do that is achieving something rare. And credit must go to director Levin, cinematographer Henry Adebonojo, and editor Emir Lewis for a terrific piece of cinema that draws one in from the get go and never lets go. Mr. Untouchable may have been a perfect appellation for Barnes and this film about him, but untouchable is not a term to describe this film, for it touches on Barnes and things beyond, like few films in its genre, and with this subject ever have. It is deep, profound, daring, provocative, and, well .great. And if you need any more reason than that to see it, then you don't understand nor care for art.
Mr. Untouchable tells the story of the Harlem drug kingpin Nicky Barnes
who had built up a multi million dollar empire in New York City into
the 1970s and because of his nickname which is used in the title, drew
the attention of then President Jimmy Carter who was so incensed that
he made it a priority of the attorney general to take down the
Director Marc Levin relies heavily on Mr. Barnes during extensive interviews for most of the documentary, and what should be a riveting tale somehow becomes tedious as the former convict is just not all that interesting. He complains about former associates turning against him and the deal he made to become an informant with d.a. Rudy Guliani to shorten his prison sentence. I was expecting a charismatic, charming, insightful man due to his wide ranging experiences, but instead a crashing bore who belongs in jail.
Sitting at the Cinema Village the other night was a mind-blowing experience.There was more to Leroy "Nicky" Barnes: the man, then Cuba Gooding Jr: the actor could have ever portrayed in "American Gangster". Marc Levin has captured the real deal with "Mr. Untouchable", he paints a picture of the drug-infested landscape of the forgotten Harlem in the 1970's.We are reminded of how Harlem was before the War on Drugs was initiated in the Nixon administration.This was a true story of cops and robbers, dealers and kingpins, junkies and victims.Where bodies were dumped in the 1970's-hipsters now guzzle down Pumpkin Spice Lattes at the newest Harlem Starbucks.There will never be another Nicky Barnes.
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