DIRECTOR BILL DUKE begins Black Light: The African American Hero--a book of photo essays he co-authored in 1993--with a story that sheds light on his approach to Hoodlum as a gangster film with a difference. "One day, in my first grade class," Duke writes, "the teacher displayed pictures of all who had made America great: Abraham Lincoln, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson." This was 1950, and Duke was one of only two black kids in his Poughkeepsie, New York, history class. As a concession to these two students, the teacher followed her tribute to the founding fathers with a brief "Negro history" of George Washington Carver, Booker T. Washington, and a black Sambo. "Intuitively," Duke writes, "I understood these two distinct and separate realities, the reality of the nation of America and the reality of my place in it."
A work of unapologetic revisionism, Duke's Hoodlum recasts the '30s-era gangster saga of Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano as a vehicle for Laurence Fishburne as Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson--the real-life "black godfather of Harlem" about whom not much has been written (or filmed). "Unfortunately, a lot of African-American history isn't well-preserved," Duke says on the phone from New York. "So, as black filmmakers, we find ourselves responsible for creating entertainment, but also, whenever possible, for relating our history." The director's 1984 debut for PBS, The Killing Floor, dramatized the black contribution to the trade-union movement in 1910s Chicago. Hoodlum coats its pill with more generic sugar, drawing equally on crime-film formula and oral history to portray Bumpy's "color war" against Schultz for control of the Harlem numbers racket.
"We tried to create a fiction around a biographical base," says Duke, whose visits to the Schomburg Center in Harlem contributed to a research bounty of phone-book proportions, as well as an award-winning web-site (http://www.hoodlumonline.com) with an aptly titled link to "history and mythology." Per folklore, Hoodlum's Bumpy appears as a sharp-dressed, tommy gun-toting Robin Hood of the Harlem Renaissance; defying the racist Schultz, he runs numbers in a bid to preserve what he calls "the only homegrown business we got." Duke backs up this story with his own numbers: "There was a 21 percent unemployment rate in the early '30s, and blacks were the first to get hit hard," he says. "The [numbers] racket provided jobs and money to the community, and in Bumpy's case, he was very entrepreneurial, supporting churches and orphanages out of his sense of the whole community."
This ironic morality play about a good guy who joins the bad element for the best reasons (and at a steep cost) isn't new for Duke, whose kindred crime masterpiece Deep Cover (1992) starred Fishburne as an undercover cop who tries to rid the black community of drugs by impersonating--and then becoming--a drug dealer. (The film's last words are: "What would you do?") Likewise, the ambiguous hero of Hoodlum picks up a gun to defend his people, and then comes to realize that he has their blood on his hands. "Most of my films deal with the testing of the human spirit and with redemption," says Duke, who has also directed a Chester Himes adaptation (A Rage in Harlem) and a remake of A Raisin in the Sun. "I think these films point to those challenging moments when you find out who you are, where you stand at a very pivotal moment in your life."
Accordingly, Hoodlum ends with Bumpy at a crossroads: his empire crumbled, his friends dead or deserted, his conscience nagging. Duke says the real Bumpy, despite 23 attempts on his life, eventually died of a heart attack while eating pancakes and waffles in a Harlem restaurant at age 68. But of course, to film such a peaceful ending would have risked Hoodlum's status as a cautionary tale. "You want to make sure that you're not glorifying something you abhor," Duke says. "We meant to underline as much as possible the idea that Bumpy is not a hero so much as a victim of circumstance. It's hard, because you don't want to hit people over the head, but you want to at least say it clearly enough so that they know you're making a statement."
Duke took a break from statement movies a few years ago by directing The Cemetery Club (1992) and Sister Act 2 (1993) back to back. But even these two Disney films were experiments for him. "I was attempting to transcend my color, in the sense that I didn't want to be limited by anything but my ability," says Duke, who started as an '80s-era character actor (American Gigolo, Commando) and later graduated from the American Film Institute to work on TV (e.g. Hill Street Blues, Miami Vice) and features. "I was being offered all these so-called 'black' projects, and my argument at the time was that until Woody Allen is referred to as a wonderful Jewish director, or Scorsese as a wonderful Italian director, I just wanted to be chosen as a director. It's an uphill battle for directors of color; you have to fight to be judged by your ability."
Hoodlum is playing at area theaters.
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