Marc Levin’s 2007 documentary film, Mr. Untouchable, which gives background on notorious 1970s Harlem drug kingpin LeRoy ‘Nicky’ Barnes is a flat out great documentary. It is insightful, points out things that are wrong with many people’s ideas on reality, and does very well in backgrounding Barnes’ life and times, as well as using the often tired “talking heads” approach in a fresh way, by making those talking heads contradict one another and reveal their own evils when they speak of Barnes (who also appears in the film, silhouetted, because he’s in the Federal Witness Protection Program).
This 92 minute film is titled after an appellation Barnes received posing for the cover of the Sunday New York Times Magazine of June 5th, 1977. Barnes’ lawyer recounts how the editors of the Times gave him a choice to relay to Barnes: He could either come in for a photo shoot or they would use his mug shot; a thought which horrified Barnes, an ex-doper turned dealer, who fashioned himself a hero out of some blaxploitation film. Mr. Untouchable charts his rise, after an early stint in prison, his dominance of the Harlem drug trade because of his contacts with many of New York’s Italian gangsters (claiming to be the only “nigger” the Mob trusted). Barnes innovated new methods of cutting out middlemen to maximize his own profits, and mimicked the Mafia’s own Commission of Crime with his Harlem Council, which consisted of many of the talking heads of the documentary; most notably his ex-wife. The day Barnes appeared on the New York Times cover, then President Jimmy Carter made the toppling of Barnes’ criminal empire task number one. A few years later this was achieved through an undercover sting. But, Barnes still ran things from behind bars until his old friends on the Council started to ignore him, and one of them made a play for one of Barnes’ many girlfriends. Feeling betrayed, Barnes struck back and turned state’s evidence on many of them, resulting in dozens of convictions on racketeering.
This is why Barnes appears in shadow during his interviews. Yet, the most remarkable thing is how intelligent Barnes is about life, death, crime, and humanity. Of all the people interviewed for the film, including his former friends who think he’s a stool pigeon, only Barnes seems to have learned life’s lessons well. At the end of the film he sums this up by stating he’d rather be free and be called a stooly than be in jail and be considered honorable by thugs. But, even more impressive is Barnes’ own personal metaphor, as displayed in his life. Early on, he states how he read Nicola Machiavelli’s The Prince, which helped his rise to power (the film is studded with quotes from the work). Then, at film’s end, he states that, after he was busted, he read another book: Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, and makes a prescient comment that I have always used when referencing organized crime: He equates Captain Ahab’s obsession with the criminal’s love of money. In fact, Barnes expands the metaphor to include all of America. But he doesn’t condemn the wannabe Ahabs out there, as long as they are willing to pay the price for their actions, and accept their own destruction.
Some other amusing anecdotes include when Barnes was celebrating his first win in court, by beating a drug rap, then celebrating by taking his white lawyer out to make him an “honorary nigger.” A year later, after another personal triumph, Barnes told his lawyer they were going to celebrate by making him an “honorary black man.” The lawyer asked him what the difference was, since he was already an “honorary nigger.” Barnes told him that he and his associates don’t hang out with niggers. Another trope that gets developed is the seduction and revulsion of a younger gangster, who also served time, due to Barnes’ “singing” to the Feds. He tells how seduced he was when, while being hassled by some white traffic cops over some parking violation, outside a club, Barnes came along and told the cop to “get lost;” and he did. The younger man said that’s when he knew he wanted such power, as well. Barnes even speaks of wanting to get out of the business and go “legit” like so many ethnic gangsters before him. A final anecdote of how influential Barnes was comes from a cop who relays being on duty in the South Bronx, after Game 6 of the 1977 World Series, won by three home runs on three pitches by the New York Yankees’ Reggie Jackson (aka Mr. October). The cop says he asked a young black boy who his hero was, fully expecting the child would proclaim Jackson his hero; but instead the kid claimed it was Nicky Barnes. The cop shakes his head over how badly Barnes had successfully preyed on and duped his own people.
But the real star of Mr. Untouchable is Barnes, who shines in his interviews: He’s menacing but charming, erudite but ruthless. He matter of factly discourses on the “terminate or be terminated” aspect of the drug trade. Another facet of this documentary is that it NEVER condescends, with silly anti-drug messages. It allows Barnes to be seen, good and bad, and let the viewer decide if he’s a hero, a thug, or both. Interestingly, many negative reviews of the film excoriate it for exactly this excellent tack. Brain dead moralism, it seems, never goes out of fashion for some wannabe critics. What these critics never seem to attack is the outrageous waste of taxpayer money that is the infamously failed Drug War. If the stuff were not illegal, guys like Barnes would not exist. It’s the illegality, in the face of a high demand, that causes the problem; not to mention the Federal government’s own involvement in propping up the drug trade in Third World Countries as an economic force against, first, communism, and, now, Islamofascism. The real thugs are not the Barneses of the world, who were just slick operators in a system they inherited, but the framers of the system that has kept a majority of black and other minority youth from realizing their full potential.
And, the thing is, if one heads into this documentary with no knowledge of the drug trade, and an open mind, one will come away thinking how heinous and narrow-minded the Feds are, because this film relentlessly shows these flaws in the often smug cops who, it’s obvious, would much rather have been Barnes than convict him. Any work of art that can do that is achieving something rare. And credit must go to director Levin, cinematographer Henry Adebonojo, and editor Emir Lewis for a terrific piece of cinema that draws one in from the get go and never lets go. Mr. Untouchable may have been a perfect appellation for Barnes and this film about him, but untouchable is not a term to describe this film, for it touches on Barnes and things beyond, like few films in its genre, and with this subject ever have. It is deep, profound, daring, provocative, and, well . . . great. And if you need any more reason than that to see it, then you don’t understand nor care for art.