In the mid-1930s, when America was in the throes of the Depression, New
York City's vice lords carved up the metropolis into zones of operation.
Lucky Luciano controlled prostitution, and Dutch Schultz ran illegal
liquor; they shared the gambling interests. Meanwhile, dozens of small-time
operators maintained niche markets in neighborhoods outside the purview of
the criminal bosses. In Harlem, for example, a West Indian woman known as
Madame Queen maintained a tight grip on the lucrative numbers racket.
Hoodlum retells the legend (based on fact) of a time when Schultz
and Luciano attempted to commandeer Harlem's numbers game and run the Queen
out. Standing against the interlopers--at great risk to himself and to his
community--was Bumpy Johnson, a ruthless schemer who attempted to keep
Harlem's crime ethnically pure by pitting Luciano and Schultz against each
Hoodlum has a great subject; too bad it's not a great film, or
even a very good one. With the exception of Lawrence Fishburne, who plays
Bumpy, the acting is either scenery-chewing or amateurish; Tim Roth's
profane Schultz is the worst offender in the former category, while Loretta
Devine's stereotypical sassy black mama anchors the latter. And though the
cinematography by Frank Tidy is wonderfully atmospheric, his well-composed
long shots are all but ruined by the impatient, choppy editing.
Director Bill Duke, whose films have ranged from the ridiculous (The
Cemetery Club) to the sublime (Deep Cover) to somewhere in
between (A Rage in Harlem), has to shoulder the blame for the film's
general ineptitude. The incomprehensible action scenes and sluggish pacing
are ultimately his responsibility.
He doesn't botch Hoodlum single-handedly, however. The script by
Chris Brancato has insufficient scope for the story Duke wants to tell. The
movie is rightfully focused on Bumpy, but it's too narrowly focused; by
short-shrifting the screen time for Dutch and Lucky, we lose the larger
context of crime in the city. For a crime film to work--be it The
Godfather or Miller's Crossing--audiences have to know exactly
who all the players are and what the stakes are. Otherwise, we don't
understand why the crooks don't just shoot each other and be done with it.
Hoodlum never tells us the rules.
Even worse, Brancato's screenplay seems to miss the enormous irony of
Bumpy risking the lives of his people to ensure that his organization alone
can prey upon their weakness for gambling. There is something
cruelly heroic about Bumpy's vision: After all, who should control
Harlem's rackets, if not the citizens of Harlem? But Hoodlum tends
to play down the uglier side of the drama in favor of a weak romantic
subplot between Bumpy and a pious nurse (Vanessa Williams). The nurse's
token objections to the numbers, and to violence, exist only so that Bumpy
and his crew can rebut them. This way, the filmmakers can reassure the
audience that the story is about good versus evil, not evil versus greater
The real story here is the continuing battle in serious action
movies between empty, crowd-pleasing violence and uncompromising inquiry
into human values. (This week's upcoming The Game should continue
the struggle in an interesting way.) For the sake of blood and thrills,
Duke and Brancato sell out a fascinating chapter in the history of
America's racial conflict.