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Mr. Untouchable

Marc Levin's documentary profile of 1960s and '70s drug lord Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, a onetime junkie who cleaned up in jail and learned the business of serious lawbreaking from the mafiosi with whom he was imprisoned, is structured around a series of lengthy interviews with the now-reformed pusher man. And while Levin gives Barnes and his former associates a respectable forum in which to expound on their grandiose code of the streets, he also gives them ample opportunity to hang themselves with their own self-justifying braggadocio. Barnes, now in his seventies and relocated by the Witness Protection Program, is shot only in silhouette, but there's plenty of footage of him in his heyday, dressed to the pimpalicious nines and playing to the cameras like a movie star. Barnes was organized, disciplined and knew the value of good PR: During the same time that he was flooding Harlem with heroin, which exacerbated the neighborhood's entrenched poverty and notorious crime rate, he was "giving back to the community" by giving impoverished families Thanksgiving turkeys from the back of a truck. He took his code of values from Machiavelli's The Prince, set up his own Mafia-inspired crime family — "The Council" — and, unlike such predecessors as Bumpy Johnson (1906–68), Barnes excelled in beating the rap (hence the nickname "Mr. Untouchable"), abetted directly and indirectly by the then-notoriously corrupt NYPD. Reporter Fred Ferretti's 1977 New York Times Magazine cover story helped turn up the heat: Then-president Jimmy Carter was so affronted that he sicced federal law enforcement on Barnes, who was finally convicted and sent to prison later that year. In 1984, concerned that his assets were being mishandled and that he was being personally betrayed by his supposedly loyal, uncorruptible Council, Barnes cut a deal and turned in dozens of his former friends and associates; U.S. attorney Rudolph Giuliani showed his gratitude by recommending parole, which Barnes was granted in 1998. Levin was clearly captivated by the sheer spectacle of Barnes' career, a kaleidoscopic dream of beautiful women, expensive clothes and accessories, lavish parties, and brutal violence, and the film sometimes sacrifices precision for drama: Barnes did not, for example, "disappear... in 1986" — he was in jail. He disappeared from public view, which isn't exactly the same thing, and while that may seem like a minor detail, details are important when your subject is a self-aggrandizing liar. In the end, it's clear that for all Barnes' protestations about wanting his rise and fall to serve as a cautionary lesson for young, would-be criminals, he's still as pleased as punch that he was once the king of the underworld.