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Producer, Filmmaker: U.S. Obsessed with Black Gangsters

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We want talk to about gangsters - black gangsters. Some of you might remember when "The Mack" landed on movie screens or "Superfly" or Sweetback from "Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song." Those iconic movie figures are the idealized black gangsters - the smooth, cool criminal, as fashionable in their time as crepe soled platform shoes and wide-brimmed hats.

This week, gangster theme entertainment is back on the screen. Two new movies and a BET series all deal with real life black gangsters - some of them are still around.

(Soundbite of song, "Pusherman")

Unidentified Man (Singer): (Singing) I'm your mama, I'm your daddy. I'm that (bleep) in the alley.

MARTIN: The film "American Gangster" with Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe and Ruby Dee hits theaters tomorrow. That movie tells the story of Harlem heroin king Frank Lucas.

BET's documentary series is also titled "American Gangster." It profiles a number of famous black gangsters. In another documentary, "Mr. Untouchable" about drug-king Nicky Barnes, was released in major markets earlier this week.

Joining us to talk about the recurring fascination with black gangsters are Mark Rowland and Marc Levin. Rowland is supervising producer for BET's "Gangster" series, and Levin directed "Mr. Untouchable."

Thanks to you both.

Mr. MARC LEVIN (Director, "Mr. Untouchable"): Good to be here.

Mr. MARK ROWLAND (Supervising Producer, "American Gangster"): Thank you.

MARTIN: So I guess we'll start with Mark Rowland. Gangsters go in and out of fashion, I would say. But for some reason, they're back now. Why do think all these projects are popping up now?

Mr. ROWLAND: Well, Michel, I think a lot of it has to do with - we're really talking about black gangsters in the African-American community. And I think that there's a lot of - basically, it's recent history that has been underreported up until now. It's kind of fascinating for all of us to kind of see how gangsters or really the heads of significant criminal organizations operate. Who - when we're talking about guys like Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas, we're really talking about guys who really came of age in a larger social context, in the crucible of '60s and the '70s. And really, what they've done hasn't really come to light as much as a lot of the other more famous aspects of the '60s.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. ROWLAND: Now, both these guys are really ready to tell their stories. They're capable of telling their stories, neither one of them is in prison. And I think because what they did really, you know, has had an impact, you know, in their time on what was going on in the larger community around them, their stories are really significant, and people are fascinated by what they did and how did it, and especially when it's coming from them in their own voice.

MARTIN: Marc Levin, what do you think?

Mr. LEVIN: Well, I would say part of it is the hip-hop generation, the coming of age, and curious about the source of its own popular culture - not only the samples and the music and imagery from the blaxploitation films you mentioned and other movies in the '70s, but, you know, kind of just a general interest in kind of where the whole hip-hop culture was born. And these guys are significant figures in, certainly, the side that you know we call gangster rap and gangsterism.

But I'd say there is a deeper part of the American experience that the gangster genre really is all about. And that is - at a time of kind of violence in our culture and the suspicion of the hypocrisy of authority figures, corruption and a growing inequality, you see us turning to these movies where the so-called good bad men or the bad good men - maybe they do violent things, maybe they're selfish, greedy, materialistic, but they seem to be straightforward and not hypocritical about who they are.

MARTIN: I'm going to play a short clip from the BET series, "American Gangsters." Here it is.

(Soundbite of BET series, "American Gangsters")

Unidentified Man #1: He was the high-rolling kid known all over Baltimore as Little Melvin, the singular, the nonparallel. The throwback. He was the man.

Unidentified Man #2 : Melvin Williams is a legend. He was the guy that ruled Baltimore.

Unidentified Man #1: Until the day he found a new game.

Unidentified Man #3: And he said this is the substance that I bring to the table today. This is called heroin.

MARTIN: So, Mark Rowland, that's from your series.

Mr. ROWLAND: Yes, it is.

MARTIN: Okay. Now, you know, you're making it sound kind of cool to be selling heroin, but anybody who has had experience with heroin knows there's nothing cool about it. It's caused a lot of destruction in these communities.

Mr. ROWLAND: I think, you know, people who watch the show, I mean, it's gotten actually a lot of credit, I think, for not glamorizing the actions and the lives of these people that it's really done - you hear their side, you hear the side of law enforcements, you hear the side of community people. And ultimately, the message becomes pretty clearly - crime does not pay.

MARTIN: Tell me about Frank Lucas.

Mr. ROWLAND: Well, Frank is — you know, he was a very - on a personal level, he's a very charming individual. I mean, one of the things that I think is fascinating about seeing a guy like this face to face, not just for myself but for the general audience, is you may have in your mind that because they did monstrous things that they're brutes, and a personality - in terms of their personality.

And that's not really the case. I mean, there's a reason that they got to be where they got. And they actually have qualities that if were channeled into a more respectable profession, we would probably find admirable. You know, smart…

MARTIN: Like what?

Mr. ROWLAND: They're smart - he's smart. He's a…

MARTIN: Strong, strategic thinker?

Mr. ROWLAND: Exactly. He's ambitious. He's - he has a personality that is subtly manipulative in terms of getting other people to do what they do, and has a vision. He's - he was innovative. You know, he - you know, one of the things that he's most famous for was actually finding a way to transport heroin directly from Southeast Asia back to the United States in the coffins of dead American soldiers, which is kind of a grisly metaphor for the entire war, and certainly not something to be admired. At the same time, war profiteering didn't begin or end with Frank Lucas.

MARTIN: Let's play a clip from the fictional treatment of Frank Lucas, which is the "American Gangster" movie with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. Let's play that clip.

(Soundbite of movie, "American Gangster")

Unidentified Male Actor: How would you get to do it to the states?

Mr. DENZEL WASHINGTON (Actor): (As Frank Lucas) You know, don't worry about that.

Unidentified Male Actor: Who do you for (unintelligible)?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) You never got to worry about that either.

Unidentified Male Actor: Who are you really?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) Frank Lucas. It says right there in my passport.

Unidentified Male Actor: I mean, who you represent?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) Me.

unidentified Male Actor: You think you're going to take a hundred kilos of heroin into the U.S. and you don't work for anyone? Someone is going to allow that?

Mr. WASHINGTON: (As Frank Lucas) That's right.

MARTIN: That always drives documentarians crazy when you, you know, bring in the fictional treatment. But the - I don't know what you want to call it, the iciness, the coolness, the kind of ice-water-running-in-his-veins quality that you're seeing in the Denzel Washington performance. Is that Frank Lucas as you know him?

Mr. ROWLAND: I think Denzel did a pretty remarkable job of sort of channeling the vibe of what I imagined Frank Lucas would've been 30 or 40 years ago when he was really in his physical prime as well as his - the top of his criminal career. The Frank Lucas that I've come to know isn't quite that icy. I mean, I think that the passage of time, he's been humbled to a great extent by circumstances.

MARTIN: Mr. Levin, I wanted to ask you the same question I asked Mr. Rowland is that these people dealt death on the streets, and the main people who suffered for it were African-American - people who took the drugs, people who sold the drugs, people who got caught up in the drug trade. Do you have any concern that you're glamorizing this?

Mr. LEVIN: I certainly…

MARTIN: (unintelligible)

Mr. LEVIN: I've certainly thought about it. We've screened the film, you know, before it was finished to many, many people - got a lot of input. You know, I'm at peace with it. I mean, look, I got to be honest. I think the war on drugs is a farce. You know, I'm not saying that heroin is good for you, but this whole war on drugs, which began in the early 1970s, right in this era.

We're talking about the Rockefeller Law, Nixon launching the war on drugs. What has this thing turned into? It's basically just turned into a program - a war on our own poor people. And you're talking about black people. It's put, you know, thousands in prison. So I don't buy into the war on drugs at all. I think it's a total - it's the prohibition of our era. I'm not…

MARTIN: Is that partly why you made the film?

Mr. LEVIN: That's definitely part of my interest. I mean, I knew about Nicky Barnes when I lived in New York in the '70s. And it wasn't only the blacks. Yes, Harlem was decimated, there's no doubt about it, but, you know, go down to the Lower East Side, go to Times Square. Unfortunately, I had friends that were in that game also.

MARTIN: Sure. But as you pointed out that the majority of people who are in prison for drug-related crimes are African-American and Latino.

Mr. LEVIN: That's right. And that's the farce.

MARTIN: Even if they are not the majority of the consumers.

Mr. LEVIN: That's exactly the point. There you got it.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Mark Rowland, a supervising producer for BET's "American Gangster" series, and Marc Levin, director of "Mr. Untouchable."

Nicky Barnes, tell me about hi.

Mr. LEVIN: Well, I think part of the fascination both with Nicky Barnes and Frank Lucas is, I guess, the story of ethnic succession. In other words, that we've had these gangster stories since the beginning of the 20th century. And first it was the Irish then the Jews and the Italians. And at the end of the '60s and the beginning of the '70s, as you said in the intro, you had the black exploitation film, but these two characters were real and operating. And in part of their myth and their story is they stood up to the whites, they stood up to the mafia and they said it's our turn. You know, we're going to run this business. We don't have to work for you anymore.

Lucas did it thorough importing on his own; Nicky did it with a very unusual relationship with some of the younger mafia guys — Mattie Madonna and crazy Joey Gallo. And also organizing what was called the Council, a group of other drug kingpins, most of them from Harlem, into a kind of a drug corporation, and controlling the distribution of heroin from the source, the distributor, right down to the street, and in doing that, making more money than anyone had.

(Soundbite of movie, "Mr. Untouchable")

Mr. NICKY BARNES (former gangster): I was Nicky Barnes. In the '70s, I was the heroin king in Harlem.

(Soundbite of gunshot)

Mr. BARNES: I've flowed the streets with powder.

Unidentified Man #2: He was an arrogant drug dealer that needed to be taken down.

Unidentified Man #3: He was the gangster. He was the man.

Unidentified Man #4: The Al Capone of Harlem, if you would.

Unidentified Woman: The Godfather.

MARTIN: Now, Mr. Levin, as I understand that Nicky Barnes is still under witness protection. So in the film, his face isn't shown.

Mr. LEVIN: Yeah, he is filmed in a silhouette and in close ups of his hands and - but now we couldn't reveal his identity.

MARTIN: Does he have any remorse about what he did?

Mr. LEVIN: Well, I would say, no. I'm sure there is some remorse, but certainly, what he expresses in "Mr. Untouchable" is a sense of - I did what I had to do and I'm not going to apologize and say I'm sorry for it.

Not only did Nicky, you know, sell heroin and not only did he have people killed, but he also flipped, you know, and became a cooperating witness.

MARTIN: Both men whom you profile, Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes, cooperated with the police after they were arrested. And this is of interest because as you both probably know that this whole question of snitching has become very volatile particularly in the African-American community. Many people feel that people are dying because of this no-snitching ethos. And yet both of these men are still held up as, you know, made men as it were.

Well, Mr. Rowland, Mr. Levin, what do you think about that?

Mr. ROWLAND: I personally think they did the right thing.

MARTIN: And does he have any remorse? I didn't ask you this, does Frank Lucas have any remorse about being a drug dealer?

Mr. ROWLAND: I think it's a very qualified remorse. I think that in his heart of hearts as Richie Roberts, the prosecutor, tells a great story in the documentary that we show about actually seeing Frank in prison after a woman, whose son had died of a heroine overdose testified in Lucas's trial. And that Frank was actually moved emotionally. He was personally a pretty devoted father to his daughter and said something to the effect, if I didn't realize, you know, I never really thought of it that way; I didn't realize the cost. And when we spoke about it that was the one thing that he said — I wish I could do something about it now, but I can't.

MARTIN: Has he followed this whole no-snitching issue?

Mr. ROWLAND: Frank is certainly aware that snitching is not held in high regard…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROWLAND: …by a lot of kids on the street and he makes an attempt to essentially shade their limits in the extent of his own cooperation. He - the movie actually does that, I would say, probably to a fault. They really make it sound as if Frank's - not only his - that his motivation was to basically bring down a lot of the crooked cops and officers who were involved in abetting his operation, but you don't really get to pick and choose when you go into - when you agree into cooperating with the authorities. And he actually provided a lot of information, if not direct testimony that led to bringing down all sorts of people on all levels.

MARTIN: And what sorts of people? Now, - this story makes that pretty clear that his - the net was wide, yeah.

Mr. Levin, what about you? Has Mr. Barnes - I don't know if you had this conversation with him, has he followed this whole no-snitching thing?

Mr. LEVIN: Oh, yeah…

MARTIN: What does he think about that?

Mr. LEVIN: Well, Nicky Barnes is known as one of the most famous rats in criminal history. I mean, years before Sammy Gravano - so he's followed it very closely and he is very outspoken in refuting what he would call the values of the street and in justifying what he did. And I'm not saying it's right. In fact, you know, I certainly questioned. His motive was a little different than Frank's I think. Nicky had been in prison for five years and felt he could well run his business and its whole operation at a prison.

And it was as the business started falling apart, and then two of the key women in his life - his common-law wife, the mother of his children, and his mistress — got involved with some people he didn't like. One of them being, you know, Guy Fisher, one of the council members.

He started kind of going crazy in prison. And as he says in our film, if I can't run it, I can wreck it. So the first law of the street is not, not snitching; in his mind, it's payback and revenge. And that's why he reached out to the federal authorities and said I want to bring these guys down. That's the only way he could assert his power.

Nicky certainly doesn't deny he cooperated - as I say, he's rationalized it - but this debate on the street, one of the stunning things is when you talk to kids, young people afterwards about, you know, how do they make sense of all these, it's not the murder and the violence, it's not the poisoning of one's own community and the addiction, it's the snitching. That's the first thing that comes up. And I would say, as certainly in Nicky's case, right here in New York City - it's not the case that he's the man in that sense. He's the snitch. And that's the first thing that comes up.

MARTIN: Interesting. What about you, Mark Rowland?

Mr. ROWLAND: Yeah.

MARTIN: Any final thoughts? Any surprises for you?

Mr. ROWLAND: I think that, you know, when you get to meet these guys, in my case, you know, Frank - you're always a little bit taken aback that you can be taken in by them on a personal level, that life and human character isn't necessarily as black and white as maybe we'd like to believe. You know, Richie Roberts, the prosecutor who helped bring Frank down is also the godfather of his youngest son. You know, which tells you something about the complexities, I think, that - you know, there's - most human characters come in the shades of gray.

MARTIN: The godfather of his youngest son. That got my attention.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. LEVIN: I would agree with Mark. I think that is one of the fascinating things. Somebody once said to me, you know, why would you make a film about Nicky Barnes? And I jokingly said because I couldn't get to Dick Cheney. Meaning that I'm fascinated by power, by people who amass and have incredible control over, you know, thousands of lives. How do they think? How do they feel? How do they make these decisions?

MARTIN: Marc Levin, directed "Mr. Untouchable." It's available on major markets as of this week. He joined us from our New York bureau. Mark Rowland is a supervising producer for BET's "American Gangster" series. He joined us from the studios of NPR West.

Gentlemen, thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mr. ROWLAND: Been a pleasure.

Mr. LEVIN: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Boss")

Mr. JAMES BROWN (Singer, Performer): One. Two. Get down.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today, I'm Michel Martin and this TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.