See our Best of Detroit 2020 winners.

Wednesday, September 3, 1997


Posted By on Wed, Sep 3, 1997 at 12:00 AM

If there was any doubt that Hoodlum's cinematic model is the masterful mobster epic, The Godfather (1972), it's erased when the somber survivors of a bloody ambush, Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) and Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson), deal with their shock and grief by sitting very quietly together and listening to music. This is Harlem in 1934-5, but they're listening not to blues, jazz or gospel, but to opera.

Director Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem, Deep Cover) tries to create his own majestic gangster film, but his valiant efforts are undermined by the plodding, lifeless dialogue from first-time screenwriter Chris Brancato and the perfunctory amber-tinged period cinematography from Frank Tidy (Under Siege).

What Duke does have on his side is three fine actors embodying powerful mobsters: Andy Garcia as a smooth, elegant Lucky Luciano (even capturing his lazy eye), secure in his top-dog position; Tim Roth in another eccentric and compelling performance as a crude, remorseless and cruelly effective Dutch Schultz, expert at inflicting casual humiliations; and Fishburne's sly Bumpy Johnson, a cool cipher whose grab for power is mixed in with altruistic compulsions.

After being paroled from prison, Bumpy returns to Depression-era Harlem and quickly becomes reacquainted with St. Clair (also known as the regal Madame Queen), who runs the profitable "numbers" racket, an illegal lottery. Dutch Schultz has been muscling in on the Queen's territory, and Bumpy moves in to set things straight.

Bumpy is portrayed as heroic but conflicted. This stoic killer is also a master strategist (he must be since he's always playing chess), charming enough to attract a committed do-gooder (Vanessa L. Williams), too criminal to keep her.

But Hoodlum is too simplistic to grant Bumpy the ambiguity or complexity that Fishburne aims for in his performance. Here, the good guys' goal is to keep control of their own organized crime, while the bad guys are seen as greedy, vicious racists or traitors (Clarence Williams III as Schultz's enforcer).

Ultimately, Bill Duke's morality tale ends up playing as little more than a sad turf war.

Send comments to


We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Detroit Metro Times works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Detroit and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Detroit's true free press free.

Read the Digital Print Issue

October 14, 2020

View more issues


Never miss a beat

Sign Up Now

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.

Best Things to Do In Detroit