Hearing opportunity knock, the promoters of this down-and-dirty documentary are piggybacking on the big-budget studio epic American Gangster by rushing out this take on Frank Lucas' flashier, slicker rival Leroy "Nicky" Barnes. Where the Gangster tries to lionize a fictionalized Lucas, the real-life Barnes is examined with a mixture of disgust and slack-jawed amazement. Barnes dressed loud, lived large and partied like a rock star, becoming an icon in the community he poisoned and exploited. At his flamboyant peak, he posed for the cover of The New York Times Magazine. Even the cops who hunted him for years seemed slightly in awe. Equally amazing was his lawyer, David Brietbart, who proudly recalls being dubbed an "honorary nigger," after Barnes beats one of many raps.
The film is honest about the impact of hardcore drugs and the brutal street-level capitalism of selling them. But director Marc Levin hits the moral dead zone in letting Barnes speak for himself, as he fondly recounts his adventures as if he's flipping through a high school yearbook. Now in the witness protection program, Barnes still has scores to settle, and a myth to defend, comparing himself to suicide bombers, Santa Claus and Captain Ahab while justifying and celebrating his crimes. It makes for a truly fascinating portrait, but there's something dangerous in letting a thug have his due.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].