Retro Film Review: Hoodlum (1997)


Yesterday two Croatian generals appeared as defendants at Hague Tribunal and, just like in many similar cases, most of Croatian public predictably reacted with outrage over the mere fact of "our boys" having to answer to "absurd war crimes charges". This tribal
world-view, shared by all participants of former Yugoslav wars, is not limited to Europe with its centuries-old sectarian conflicts. It could be found even in countries that like to portray themselves as enlightened bastions of multi-ethnic tolerance. Hoodlum, 1997 period gangster film directed by Bill Duke, applies such world-view to depiction of some real life events.

The film starts in 1934 when Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (played by Laurence Fishburne) departs from Sing Sing prison where he had spent sentence for killing a man. When gets to Harlem he is confronted with misery created by Depression and alleviated by racism. The only way for black residents of Harlem to earn money lies in "numbers", well-organised, popular and illegal lottery game run by Stephanie St. Clair (played by Cicely Tyson). "Bumpy" becomes one of St. Clair's lieutenants and that happens just in time, because enormous success and large profits of "numbers" game attract attention of white gangsters, including vicious psychopath Dutch Schultz (played by Tim Roth). Using services of corrupt police and judiciary, Schultz eliminates St. Clair but "Bumpy" takes her position and, determined to protect the only black owned business in town, starts armed resistance against Schultz's thugs. As ensuing bloodbath escalates, Schultz's ally and New York crime boss Lucky Luciano (played by Andy Garcia) is getting worried about violence spilling over and thus threatening his cordial relationship with corrupt prosecutor Thomas Dewey (played by William Atherton).

Director Bill Duke, best known as one of America's most recognisable and effective character actors, invested a lot of effort in order to recreate the period of the film. Costumes are authentic, while Chicago locations provide 1930s architecture which doesn't exist in modern Harlem any more. Authenticity is even in the physical look of Lucky Luciano - of all actors depicting that historical character only Andy Garcia bothered to have look that truly resembled infamous gangster. Unfortunately, all that authenticity only underlines the film's problematic portrayal of real historical events and characters. In short, Hoodlum, in desire to provide black Americans with their own "larger-than-life" and mythical organised crime figures, goes towards glamorisation and justification of problematic characters and social phenomena. "Numbers" game, instead of being portrayed as clever way of making poor people even poorer, is a presented as economic miracle drug with the same vigour pyramid schemes used to be advertised among impoverished masses of certain East European countries. "Bumpy" Johnson, instead of being presented as vicious gangster, is portrayed as refined intellectual and near-messianic leader of the people, just like certain Third World dictators used to receive adulation among uninformed partisans in Western countries. Finally, the film twists everything which is known about Thomas Dewey, legendary crime fighter who at times twisted law with the sole purpose of bringing most notorious gangsters, including Luciano, behind bars.

Unfortunately, questionable approach to history is among the last of this film's problems. Bill Duke made it overlong, poorly edited and, just like in the case of Michael Collins, unnecessary romantic subplot about "Bumpy" Johnson and humanitarian worker played by Vanessa L. Williams, only got in the way of the story. Duke's introduction of two bizarre assassins temporarily shifts the tone of Hoodlum towards black comedy, but in the end all that makes film too strange to be taken seriously, while in the same time violence makes it too dark to be funny. Apart from Fishburne, who does very good with his charismatic presence, acting is bad. Andy Garcia, despite physically resembling Luciano, is a caricature while Roth tragically overacts in the cliched role of psychopathic mobster. In the end, Hoodlum doesn't bring anything new to the gangster film genre and only represents waste of the talents who should have known better.

RATING: 2/10 (-)

(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup on March 15th 2004)

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