There’s been a lot of great films made about criminals of the Prohibition era from Scarface (1932) to The St Valentines Day Massacre (1967) to Once Upon a Time in America (1984). One of my favorites of the last 20 years is HOODLUM (1997) directed by Bill Duke. Film fans will know Duke best as “Mac” in the classic action-adventure movie Predator (1987). With this largely fictional yet enthralling story Duke focused on one of the most infamous African-American gangsters of the 30s and 40s.
Laurence Fishburne plays Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson a career criminal who is being released from Sing Sing prison after a few years. When he steps off the train platform back into his old neighborhood of Harlem he can immediately see things have changed since he left. A bunch of thugs led by Bub Hewlett (Clarence Williams III) sent by a new underworld boss named Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) bust up a store where some numbers runners are hanging out. Bumpy is almost hurt himself in the confrontation but luckily gets out of the place unharmed. His best friend is “Illinois” Gordon (Chi McBride), who he seeks out for some help to get back on his feet. Illinois is a very jovial man and is extremely glad to see his best friend out of the slams and back in town. Bumpy soon wrangles enough money to rent himself a small room in a rundown tenement and even hooks up a customized lighting system (using the neon sign outside) and settles in. As a homecoming gift, Illinois presents him with a stolen gun. Although it’s mainly for protection, Bumpy’s reaction tells us otherwise.
Without any real future or way to make money, Bumpy is intent on getting back into the crime rackets and with his lengthy prison record it’s easy to see why. To do this he goes to see the main boss that holds power over the burrough. Surprisingly it’s not a man but a woman, “Madam Queen” Stephanie St. Claire (Cicely Tyson). Madam Queen is a Carribean native whose class and discretion over the years has earned her an honored status by those whom she deals with. The only trouble she has on the horizon is Schultz, a ruthless psychopath who is set on pushing her out at any cost. Bumpy can see what’s at stake and pledges to protect Madam Queen from Schultz’s henchmen along with her official bodyguard (Eddie Bo Smith Jr). On his travels, Bumpy makes the acquaintance of a beautiful young woman named Francine Hughes (Vanessa Williams) who seems to be much more straight laced than the other ‘hood gals like Illinois’ squeeze Pigfoot Mary (Loretta Divine) or Sulie (Queen Latifah). Like the old saying goes, opposites attract as Bumpy, the tough gangster with an intellectual, poetic side and Francine the straight laced, god fearing woman soon fall in love.
Bumpy’s steely resolve and refusal to back down makes him a powerful threat to Schultz and an all out bloody battle begins. Bumpy craves the power and after Madam Queen is thrown in prison on a trumped up charge, he is able to take over as the Crime Kingpin of Harlem. Tragically, the war between him and Schultz begins taking its toll on those around him while his close relationship with Francine deteriorates. All that stands between Bumpy and Schultz from tearing the town apart is Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia) who can see that Bumpy deserves respect and a seat at the table of crime bosses which will help bring things back to normal. Schultz continuously relents at Lucky and the other family chieftains decision. He then sets out to assassinate Bumpy in a myriad of ways, but his wreckless methods and disrespectful attitude towards his partners ultimately leaves him open to his own downfall in the underworld.
HOODLUM is an excellent crime-thriller that seemed to fall under the radar upon its release. An interesting angle is the fact that if it had been made 20 years earlier it certainly would’ve been considered a classic Blaxploitation film along with similar movies like Black Caesar. Another thing that sets it apart from almost all other gangster films is how it confronts racism head on. Of course that is a main reason why it’s so great as it’s both an action packed popcorn film and a kind of anti-establishment/empowerment tale. I also think that it’s much better than Ridley Scott’s rather dull American Gangster which followed the life of Frank Lucas, Bumpy’s successor in the Harlem crime world.
- An old friend of the real Lucky Luciano allowed Andy Garcia to wear Lucky’s pinkie ring for one scene. You can see it when Lucky gives Thomas Dewey the bribe money at the whorehouse. (when the prostitute takes the cigar out of Lucky’s hand).
- This is the second film in which Laurence Fishburne has played Harlem gangster Elsworth “Bumpy” Johnson. He first played him in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club as “Bumpy” Jackson in a small role.
- In this film, actor David Darlow portrays Lucky Luciano’s accountant, Johnny. Darlow actually played Lucky Luciano in an episode of the syndicated series The Untouchables .
- Although Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, Dutch Schultz, Lucky Luciano, and Stephanie St. Clair existed in real life, the movie is fictional and only loosely based on incidents in their lives during this time period. Many other characters, including Francine Hughes (Vanessa L. Williams), Captain Foley (Richard Bradford), and Calvin (J.W. Smith), are also fictional and written solely for this movie.
- Actor Clarence Williams III who plays the character Bub Hewlett in Hoodlum also plays Bumpy Johnson in the 2007 true crime drama “American Gangster”.