Hoodlum (1997)

Rated R

Starring: Laurence Fishburne, Tim Roth, Andy Garcia and Cicely Tyson

Rated: R Crime/Drama

Set in 1934, Hoodlum is a fictionalized account of the real-life figures of New York organized crime during Prohibition.  It centers upon the battle between Black and White coalitions for control of the policy betting systems operating in Harlem, a community in Manhattan.

Hoodlum chronicles the war, posited from the vantage of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Laurence Fishburne).  Formerly incarcerated, he has been released from Sing Sing Correctional Facility.  Johnson seeks to gain control of the “penny bets” racket that many African-Americans, of all socioeconomic strata, place in his community.  Playing the number is a way of life in Harlem and the system has been primarily controlled by Stephanie “Madame Queen” St. Clair (Cicely Tyson).

With the repeal of Prohibition approaching, The Commission, an organization of White mobsters, is scrambling to determine ways to continue making the excessive amounts of money they have become accustomed to collecting.  German-Jewish gangster, Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth), seeks to take over the Harlem community; Salvatore “Charlie ‘Lucky Luciano’” Luciana (Andy Garcia), as head of the collective, believes his attempts would be futile.

When the freedom and life of Madame Queen are repeatedly threatened by Schultz, Johnson intercedes and together, they attempt to retain their reign in Harlem.  While Schultz has the backing of The Commission, supporting Johnson is his own organization, including his cousin, Illinois Gordon (Chi McBride), a hustler.  Also, in Bumpy’s corner is a new romantic interest, Francine (Vanessa Williams), a supporter of Pan-Africanist leader Marcus Garvey.  Adding to this turf war are dangers that include Black gangsters, such as Bub Hewlett (Clarence Williams III), who work with Schultz; crooked law enforcement officers; and a diligent U.S. Special Prosecuting Attorney, Thomas Dewey (William Atherton).

Will Bumpy Johnson be able to maintain Black control of Harlem?  This film is a definite must-see to learn its conclusion!

Hoodlum, very loosely based on actual persons in organized crime, was not a commercial success.  However, it has gained a serious following, as Hoodlum intrigued viewers in that it presents Blacks in a cultural space and power position rarely seen on film prior.

Adding to the popularity of the film was its soundtrack, which featured artists such as R&B singer Faith Evans and the group, 112; hip-hop legends, Rakim, Raekwon and the collective, Wu-Tang; as well as neo-soul performers, Erykah Badu and Rahsaan Patterson.  Starring on the soundtrack is R & B crooner, Tony Rich, who played Duke Ellington in Hoodlum.  A second soundtrack was also released.  It contained the score composed by Elmer Bernstein and performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in London, England.

In 1998, Hoodlum was nominated for seven awards.  Four of those were for the Black Film Award of the Acapulco Black Film Festival: “Best Film”, Bill Duke for “Best Director”, Laurence Fishburne for “Best Actor” and Cicely Tyson for “Best Actress”.  The other three nominations were for an Image Award of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  The nominations were for Laurence Fishburne for “Outstanding Lead Actor in a Motion Picture”, Clarence Williams III for “Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture” and Cicely Tyson for “Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture.”