During the Harlem heroin plague of the seventies, few dealers were bigger than Frank Lucas and Leroy “Nicky” Barnes. Both made millions selling dope, lived the wide-brimmed-hat high life, enabled the addiction of whole neighborhoods, and, eventually, got caught. Both were locked up and later cooperated with authorities—some might call it snitching. Now, with Lucas confined to a wheelchair and Barnes in some Witness Protection Program locale, each is the subject of a current film. Barnes reports on his life and times in the flava-full documentary Mr. Untouchable. Lucas hit the ultimate Hollywood jackpot, getting Denzel Washington, no less, to play him in American Gangster (reviewed this week in “The Culture Pages”).
When the possibility emerged that these two old-school street rivals might be willing to engage in what could only be called a historic conversation—they haven’t spoken in 30 years—it was easy to envision yelling, phone slamming, and maybe even a death threat or two. Lucas, as I knew well (from writing in this magazine the original piece upon which American Gangster is based), could go off at any moment. And Barnes, who likes to quote Moby-Dick and King Lear, mocks Lucas’s “country boy” lack of education and perceived lack of finesse in Mr. Untouchable. When it came down to it, however, the two old drug-kingpins-in-winter revealed a familiarity that bordered on a kind of love. Or at least respect for a fellow tycoon.
Tags: american gangsta