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Festivale online magazine, January, 1998


Gangster movies have been done (almost) to death. They’ve always been rags to riches to morgue stories, morality plays that are essentially hypocritical in that they make the main character a charismatic murderer with whom we are supposed to empathise. Hoodlum takes another tack, steering close to the rocks but avoiding them successfully.


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Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) became the "Black Godfather" of Harlem in the thirties. When Dutch Schultz (played as the ultimate lethal sleazebag by Roth) tries to take the Harlem numbers racket from the elegant and cultured Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson), Bumpy steps in and draws a line.

The other player in this is Lucky Luciano, played with suave and understated menace by Andy Garcia, who runs the Mafia along business lines with meetings and accountants and otherwise lives a pre-Hefner playboy life that has to be seen to be believed.

Bumpy is an intelligent, articulate man. He plays chess, writes poetry for Francine Hughes, a social worker he meets when he returns to Harlem from Sing Sing Prison. Francine is half of Bumpy’s outside conscience, the other being Illinois, his cousin, who jokes, laughs and cajoles to hide the depth of his own feelings. As with all the characters, with the possible exception of Schultz, Illinois is shown in the small things he does, the small bits of business that give a role the third dimension. Any savvy moviegoer knows that he’s set up for a fall but he is likeable and human enough for us to hope that we are wrong in the guess.

In outline, Hoodlum follows the formula of the genre to a point. We know that Bumpy and Schultz are going to go head to head in some way. We know that Luciano survives, gets deported to Italy and has his photo taken with Ian Fleming in the late 1950s. But the heart of the movie is elsewhere.

The director, Bill Duke, does a great job of building a sense of community, of black men and women doing for themselves and supporting one another. He contrasts the roccoco decadence of Luciano against the vitality of the Bamville Club. The climax relies on black men networking with each other to overcome otherwise insurmountable obstacles.

The scene where Bumpy breaks the colour bar at the Cotton Club (where we see Duke Ellington conducting the band), and the other, more overtly violent set pieces, are staged to perfection. There’s a particularly good attack on Bumpy and Francine by two pick-axe wielding killers which starts with the darkly humourous dialogue between the Salke Brothers and ends in horror.

The acting is strong. Fishburne, Garcia and Roth show three different kinds of leadership in their roles. Chi McBride, Richard Bradford as the corrupt Irish copy Foley and William Atherton as future presidential candidate Thomas Dewey are believably part of the time and place. Unfortunately, Vanessa Williams isn’t. She looks good but her acting is no more than ordinary.

Hoodlum isn’t the best gangster movie ever made, but it is a fine one. It would make a great double feature with another film about the numbers racket, Force of Evil the 1949 John Garfield film, of which it reminded me in odd moments.

Okay, I do have other one nit to pick. At the start of the film, in 1934, we see a boxing poster advertising the Primo Carnera – Joe Louis fight. The Carnera – Louis fight didn’t take place until June 25th, 1935. Louis kayoed Primo in six rounds.

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Just the facts:

Title: Hoodlum (1997) M
Written by: Chris Brancato
Directed by: Bill Duke
Produced by: Bill Duke, Laurence Fishburne, Helen Sugland, Frank Mancuso, Jr, Paul Eckstein, Chris Brancato
Edited by: harry Keramidas
Director of Photography: Frank Tidy

The Players: Laurence Fisburne, Tim Roth, Vanessa Williams, Andy Garcia
Official websitewww.hoodlum.com
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Published in Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
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