Racket Science

In Woody Allen's early comedy Take the Money and Run, stickup man Allen's wife complains about the unfairness that her husband never made the Ten Most Wanted List. "It's who you know," she bitterly insists.

The makers of the period gangster epic Hoodlum seem to have felt the same snub. The movie's tone suggests that its mission is to give credit at last to a little-known historical figure: Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson, czar of the Harlem "numbers" syndicate during the '30s. It's as if Bumpy were Crispus Attucks, the free black who became the first person to die in the American Revolution--a hero slighted by racist history.

As played by stalwart Laurence Fishburne, Bumpy is a gentleman bandit, a Harlem Renaissance man who plays chess and writes poetry. We never find out where he gained all this sophistication; when the movie starts, he's finishing up a term at Sing Sing for burglary.

We are meant to see, however, that his classy behavior isn't a pose. Bumpy really is a prince among men. His first act after getting out of the joint is to make himself the chief defender of Stephanie "Madame Queen" St. Clair (Cicely Tyson), the numbers matriarch whose home-grown Harlem operation is being muscled by Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth). Bumpy even robs from Schultz and gives to the poor, though he does this, partly, to impress the lovely Garveyite paragon (Vanessa L. Williams) he's trying to court.

Yes, you're hearing this right. What director Bill Duke (who made an excellent, neglected film of Chester Himes' A Rage in Harlem) and screenwriter Chris Brancato are trying to sell us here, without irony--or, at best, with very little irony--is the idea of Bumpy Johnson as an entrepreneurial hero, making his mark in a field dominated by whites. It's not quite as laughable an apotheosis as, say, Hoffa, or as the average movie portrait of Billy the Kid or Jesse James, but it's close.

Most gangster films, even those that fully depict the horrors of crime, make their protagonists into heroes at some level. Even those, like Little Caesar or White Heat, in which the main characters are despicable or scary still contrive to make us care about them. It's virtually a requirement of the genre, and often, as in the Godfather films or Brian De Palma's Scarface, the appeal of the gangsters to the romantic or power fantasies of the audience is subversive, inimical to the conscious intentions of the filmmakers.

Not in Hoodlum, though. Bumpy's status as a hero is unambiguous. When his lady love Williams is criticizing the "numbers," and Bumpy defends the racket on the grounds that it offers employment for young black men and a chance for the Depression-era poor to put food on their tables, we're meant to see his point (and, admittedly, it's not much less specious than the justifications for modern state lotteries). Toward the end of the film, Bumpy pays a price for his pride and inflexibility, but that's merely a matter of form--every nobleman must have his hubris, his tragic flaw.

I'm not suggesting, of course, that the only stories from black history worth telling are the "positive" ones. There's no doubt that the black gangsters of the early decades of this century are a great subject--indeed, an underexplored one. But making Hoodlum a civic-minded message movie is an almost comical demonstration of a reflex action of many African-American popular artists: that of wringing role models out of everything.

If you can grant it this rather broad dramatic license, Hoodlum is a reasonably entertaining picture, if a bit overlong. It's certainly more lucid and humanly involving than Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club, which covered much of the same material, and in which Laurence Fishburne also appeared as Bumpy Johnson, there a minor role.

There isn't a scene in the film which isn't derived from elsewhere in the genre. But the familiarity is comfortable, not tiresome, and the big gallery of actors make their scenes fresh: Chi McBride as Fishburne's sweet, heavy sidekick; handsome, sober-faced Clarence Williams III as Schultz's Harlem enforcer; Richard Bradford as another sadistic Irish flatfoot; Loretta Devine as McBride's playful lover; William Atherton as a prissy, corrupt Thomas Dewey; and Paul Benjamin as the henchman Whispers, who gained his nickname after surviving a slash to the throat. Mike Starr and Beau Starr make a macabre comedy team out of the Salke Brothers, who argue about restaurants as they go about the business of pickax murder.

Fishburne, as always, is proficient and impressive. He gives the role roughly the same quality as the rescue captain he plays in the harsh, gory space opera Event Horizon, in which he's also starring currently--that of a focused, reliable, outwardly directed man, basically decent, somewhat humorless, perhaps a bit haunted. His relationship with Williams is the least well-developed aspect of the film. Her role is conceived as Bumpy's conscience, and this makes it hard for her to come across like a person in her own right.

The real juice in Hoodlum comes from Roth's grubby, unshaven, bedraggled Dutch Schultz. Contrasted with the polish of Bumpy and of the amused, pleasure-loving Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia), the vulgarian Dutch shows Hoodlum's opinion of what makes a gangster into a villain: slovenliness. Yet when his crass behavior offends the pretensions of his colleagues in crime, there's a sense that he's cutting through the crap, and he verges on likability. Just about the only subversive thrill that Hoodlum offers is the defiant joy of being a slob.

Directed by Bill Duke; with Laurence Fishburne.


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