MR UNTOUCHABLE (2007) — RetroReview by Jennifer Merin

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mr untouchable posterHe was the ultimate Harlem gangster. The New York Times Magazine dubbed Leroy “Nicky” Barnes Mr. Untouchable, and he lived large on the millions of dollars he made as head honcho in Harlem’s heroin trade. It was a business he ran ruthlessly, until 1977, when he was arrested, turned State’s evidence and disappeared into the witness protection program.

Nicky Barnes Emerges From The Shadows–Sort of…

Leroy “Nicky” Barnes came out of hiding to be interviewed for Marc Levin’s bio-doc, Mr. Untouchable, which was being produced, quite coincidentally, at the same time as American Gangster, a fiction feature focusing on the life and times of Frank Lucas, a rival Harlem drug mogul. It seems likely that Barnes agreed to the interview because didn’t want to be seen as second to Lucas, who’s being played by Denzel Washington in the narrative feature.

At age 74, Barnes’ voice is strong and forceful, and his hands are well manicured. He wears a gold Rolex on his wrist.

But that’s all we see of him–Barnes’ face is entirely obscured in shadow. And, Marc Levin and producer Mary-Jane Robinson are quick to declare that they have no absolutely idea of where Nicky came from, nor where he went after their shoot. Nor do they want to. Nicky Barnes still has a million dollar contract on his head–and that’s because he ratted on 80 or 90 of his closest crime colleagues, members Harlem’s infamous crime Council.

According to the film, it was a New York Times Magazine cover story about Barnes that spurred federal authorities into a heated race to put him behind bars. But, they had a rough time doing so. He was smart, he paid his taxes ($250,000 on what he labeled “miscellaneous income”), and the people of Harlem wouldn’t give him up because they either thought of him as Robin Hood or were too scared to speak out against him.

Barnes was eventually charged with drug trafficking, convicted (by America’s first-ever anonymous jury) and sentenced to life imprisonment.

Bottom Line: Barnes is a Bad Apple

Five years into his sentence, Barnes was still running Harlem’s drug trade from his cell. When discovered that his partners were cheating him out of money, sleeping with his wife–and girlfriend–and using drugs in front of his young daughters, he snitched on them to the authorities.

Once Barnes began singing, he sang loud and often, exposing 80 or 80 drug dealers, thugs and hoods to indictment and conviction.

Barnes’ actions precipitated a distinct change in the Harlem crime scene credo, but his status as a legendary New York gangster continues. In fact, his is a huge legacy–his lifestyle, flamboyance and business smarts have been emulated by several generations of gangsta rappers and hip hop moguls, including Damon Dash, who helped to finance Mr. Untouchable.

Barnes’ story is presented dramaticly in the film, which uses archival footage and photographs to establish Harlem in the 1970s and the fast, high flying lifestyle of Barnes and his crew. Interviews with other drugsters, Thelma Grant (Nicky’s wife), reporters and cops round out the picture.

While Mr. Untouchable doesn’t exactly glorify or glamorizes Nicky Barnes, it doesn’t condemn him either. He was a drug dealer, after all–a really bad man. He murdered people who got in his way and, ultimately, killed his clients. In allowing Barnes to reach beyond the shadows to tell his story in his rather self-serving way, the filmmakers seem to pander. But, their getting Barnes to expose himself is a remarkable coup. We want to hear what Barnes has to say for himself–and the inner conflicts he presents are gripping.

The Product of His Time?

You can’t help but wonder what Barnes might have achieved had he had equal opportunity to excel in a legitimate occupation.

Barnes’ behavior, his strategy and the empire he established in Harlem clearly informed, influenced and inspired the likes of Russell Simmons, Sean P-Diddy Combs, Damon Dash and others who’ve built multi-faceted multimillion dollar companies on gangsta-based foundations. They even emulate Barnes’ community philanthropy.

From the start, the film implies that there’s some equation of the economic and social values espoused by Barnes during the first part of his career in crime with those embraced by some leaders in the legitimate business world, and by others in politics. That’s a notion that might bear further investigation. If that’s true, we’re in deep trouble.

Film Details:

Title: Mr. Untouchable
Director: Mark Levin
Cast: Documentary about Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, Harlem Gangster
Theatrical Release Date: 26 October 2007
Running Time: 92 mins.
MPAA Rating: R, for language, including sexual references
Parents Advisory: Advisory for content
Location: New York City
Production Company: Blowback Productions
Language: English
Distribution Company: Magnolia Films
Official Website

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