Nicky Barnes was the most powerful black drug kingpin in New York City history. From humble beginnings he came to dominate the heroin distribution business and make himself and his comrades rich beyond their wildest dreams. Trusted and trained by the Italians he set up his own black crime family – The Council – a formidable drug collective. The film has secured the testimony of Nicky Barnes himself. Barnes has broken the street code and his 23-year silence to tell all in this epic American dream story.
Much like President Reagan’s muted response to the AIDS epidemic in the early-1980s, President Richard Nixon seemed content to allow the urban wasteland that was early-1970s 'Big City’ America to wallow in the wave of violence and despair that grew out of an uncontrolled drug culture.
Filmmaker Marc Levin’s 2007 documentary Mr Untouchable defines the madness this period in US history represents by focussing on arguably the most (in)famous drug czar ever to impact American society – Leroy 'Nicky’ Barnes, aka 'Mr Untouchable’.
So nationally famous he took his street name from a New York Times profile piece on his life, Barnes redefined not only the potential the dark life of crime held for the poor people of Harlem but also the impact an entrepreneurial vision could have on the ambitions of a petty criminal. As presented in the documentary, Barnes restructured the very mechanism by which high-grade heroin made its way to the street; he brought the Italian, Irish and African-American crime syndicates together in a way the NYPD had never known before. One of the film’s strengths is its portrayal, via interviews with Drug Enforcement Agency officers and Federal agents, of the revolutionary methods they had to employ to bring Barnes down.
One of its weaknesses is its one-dimensional portrayal of 'Nicky’ Barnes, the man. He flew high, he partied hard, he screwed around. The film touches upon his family life – the wavering commitment to his two daughters, for example, and the suffering his wife endured as Barnes sought more nubile flesh – but it is the more gratuitous aspects of 1970s Big Apple hedonism as personified by Barnes, that the film really enjoys. Still-frame shots of violence, repeated over-and-over, and the checkered recollections of the surviving members of his drug-addled posse, make for an exhausting 92 minutes.
When Nixon’s anti-drug juggernaut did finally kick in, Barnes’ world came crumbling down. The internal betrayal of his 'peeps’, the corrosive impact of his own substance dependencies and the Feds' willingness to go to extremes to ensure the dismantling of his operations make for a compelling and thoroughly-researched finale to Levin’s film.
Mr Untouchable captures the flavour of the decade; the disco music, dubious fashion statements and pop-culture references ensure Levin’s doco is never less than interesting. If it casts a slightly too favourable eye over the subject and his social impact, you can’t begrudge the director his understanding of and affection for the period and its people.