The first stream in a celluloid pissing match with American Gangster, splashing onto screens next month, Marc Levin’s repetitious but revealing profile of onetime Harlem drug kingpin Leroy “Nicky” Barnes (adversary to real-life Gangster protag Frank Lucas) trades in tired blaxploitation tropes, thug-life fetishism and—in a feat of cake having + eating—vicarious moralizing. An ex-junkie who became a natty-but-nasty crime boss, Barnes made millions in Gotham’s early-’70s heroin trade, becoming a role model in the neighborhood even as his product sapped its vitality. Levin (Slam) gets lively interviews from Barnes’s former business partners and various pertinent lawmen, but spreads the limited stills and footage from the gang’s heyday pretty thin (the Curtis Mayfield–heavy score alleviates the tedium somewhat).
The real coup here is the participation of Barnes himself. Under witness protection for decades after ratting out his comrades over a perceived betrayal, he reveals his essential sociopathy while bellowing on—with his face obscured and his voice altered—about Machiavelli, effective heroin-cutting, Moby-Dick and why Frank Lucas is a punk (reportedly his motive for talking here). It becomes clear why Barnes’s onetime pursuers and ex-associates revile the guy; Levin’s reason for trotting him out to simultaneously lionize and flay him is harder to grasp.