It begins with an intriguing premise. In the 1970s, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes ran Harlem’s drug trafficking empire. A slick, savvy street entrepreneur, he created a dynasty rivaled only by those created in fictional Hollywood crime flicks. Along with his crew of dapper associates – who called themselves The Council – he used the mostly black community as a basis for a borough wide organization of sale and distribution. Working closely with the Italians, and using as much muscle as necessary to maintain his turf, Barnes flaunted his illegally gained power right in front of the police. Yet no matter how hard they tried, no matter what angle they pursued, they couldn’t take down this urban Don. It earned him a nickname that would eventually lead to his downfall – Mr. Untouchable.
And then the mystery deepens. Barnes disappeared in the mid ‘80s for reasons that are unexplained at first. As we ponder the implication of such a vanishing, we hear his accomplices discuss their feelings. Then another voice is heard, and a dark figure is shown sitting in a fancy corporate boardroom. As the conversation continues, we realize what’s happening. After decades, documentary filmmaker Marc Levin (The Protocols of Zion) has managed to track down the elusive thug, and after years outside the limelight, Barnes is ready to reclaim a small, shadowy bit of it. Never shown full on, with only his hands and cuffed shirt sleeves visible, the anonymous figure explains his rise from junkie to ghetto superstar – and the reasons for his current state of anonymity.
Potentially undermined by the Ridley Scott/ Denzel Washington/ Russell Crowe drama that’s arriving in theaters this November (American Gangster), Mr. Untouchable is still a compelling, if confused, expose. It focuses on the often argued place that African American drug dealers have/had on addicting their race to various nefarious narcotics. In Barnes’ case, it was coke and heroin. Yet there was something equally potent that this pusher was selling – the concept of fiscal reliability and communal respect via shady criminal enterprises. Marginalized due to their minority status and left to rot in places white society had long since flown from, the metropolitan maelstrom that Barnes functioned in was ripe for a reconfiguration. And with their chic clothes and bad ass persona, the local racketeer became the new inner city icon.
It’s not hard to see why. During the opening third of this frequently spellbinding doc, we see pimped out players, incredibly hot honeys hanging off their arm like smoking sexual accessories. As the talking head interviews pile up, we get a portrait of Upper East Side New York during the height of its now mythic meltdown. We see ex-addicts discuss Barnes’ generous spirit and his organization’s desire to reach out to the community. While naked women cut cocaine (stripped in order to keep them from stealing) and codes of conduct and ethics are explained, the overall image begins to get blurry. By the time our central subject returns, cloaked persona spewing Machiavellian bon mots about power and perseverance, we understand the decidedly mixed message. On the one hand, Barnes is viewed as a DIY demagogue, an example of ‘by the bootstraps’ survival. But he’s also responsible for the death and/or murder of many in his neighborhood, providing the various poisons that would eventually destroy them all.
It’s a contentious, controversial approach, and for the most part, Levin does little to mitigate it. Similar to Scarface in such American dreaming subtext, Mr. Untouchable wants the charismatic to override the criminal. When convicted money launderer Joseph “Jazz” Hayden speaks his mind, he’s portrayed as philosophical, not felonious. Similarly, “Scrap” Batts lays down the law when in comes to honor and street code. Yet he’s still a part of an illegal enterprise that shattered more lives than it ever benefited – and all that goodness was mostly aimed inward, towards Barnes and his crew. Mr. Untouchable doesn’t glamorize the trade as much as excuse it, showing how isolated individuals can become from the consequences of their actions. Even our subject seems oblivious. When, toward the end, he admits to flooding Harlem with dope, he waves off the implied aftermath as if it was a necessary pitfall of the business plan.
Then there is the overall truth of what’s being told. If you believe Mr. Untouchable, Nicky Barnes was the only major drug dealer in Harlem during the period. He was the focus of every DEA agent, all the US attorneys, local law enforcement and the New York media. When supposed rival Frank Lucas is mentioned, he is instantly dismissed as a Southern rube with a dumbbell drawl and a less than effective organization. Oddly enough, it’s the same argument made in American Gangster, except with Barnes replacing Lucas as the unimportant fringe nuisance. It creates a weird dichotomy, aside from figuring which side is right. Naturally, both films are going to focus on their central thesis and minimize the importance of anything outside its own sphere of import. And Mr. Untouchable does give Barnes the last word on almost every subject. But if Lucas was such a lackey, why should anyone make a movie about him?
The answer is fairly obvious – this is Barnes’ tale, and he would never agree to sharing the spot. At times, Mr. Untouchable feels like a promotional tool for the mysterious man’s tell-all tome of the same name. Everything is filtered through his own unique perspective, and even when others contradict or flat out reject the man’s readings, Levin leaves us with Barnes’ interpretations. This doesn’t diminish the documentary’s power. In fact, we get wrapped up in the wonderful soul soundtrack of the era (much of it coming courtesy of the late, great Curtis Mayfield) and enjoy the nostalgic look back at the Big Apple as a city under siege. Though the last two decades of Barnes’ life are skipped over with sly sonic cues – disco to hip hop to new jack swing to gansta rap – the early ‘70s receives a grand cinematic workout. Even when the film flinches, the images don’t.
Still, Mr. Untouchable will always remain a mere part of the overall story. At 90 minutes, Levin barely has time to hit the highlights. And with access to a man many thought dead, or simply financially capable of disappearing, it’s hard to fiddle with your focal point. It’s a coup that both colors and undercuts this narrative, leaving gaps where full disclosure should rule. Yet despite these random miscues, Barnes remains a compelling if oblique, topic and the movie made of his notoriety rises above its inherent inconsistencies to offer a riveting ride through Me Decade drug despair. Landing the elusive man was indeed a cinematic scoop. Failing to force a confrontation may be Mr. Untouchable’s main blunder, but it’s really no surprise. Nicky Barnes has been avoiding responsibility his entire life. Why change now? Obviously, his nickname is well earned.