Life And Art


Directed by Bill Duke
United Artists Pictures

(Note: “Life and Art” is an occasional column that compares fiction, in various media, with the real-life facts it is ostensibly based on.)

Larger-than-life figures from the annals of organized crime–Bugsy Siegel, Al Capone–are often drafted into service when Hollywood decides to make one of its perennial gangster flicks. Whether the characters on-screen end up bearing much relation to their models, however, varies from film to film. Hoodlum, directed by Bill Duke, tells the story of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, a black gangster who did battle with mobster Dutch Schultz in the 1930s. Though rooted in history, its portrayal of Johnson fits into the great Hollywood tradition of dramatic enhancement.

The film’s central story concerns a battle over the Harlem numbers racket. The numbers game was an illegal daily lottery–particularly popular in Harlem–in which, typically, players chose a number from zero to 999 and placed bets through “policy banks.” A player won if his number matched an agreed-upon daily variable made known through some public channel–for example, the last three digits of the total amount wagered at a given racetrack, which anyone could learn through the sports pages. Since the game never favored the players, the “bankers” naturally amassed large profits. Besides, the outcome was often fixed.

Schultz was one of Harlem’s most notorious fixers. When the film begins, in the early ‘30s, he (played by Tim Roth) is a white Prohibition beer baron who has muscled his way into the neighborhood numbers racket, shutting down competitors or forcing them to join his operation. Johnson (Laurence Fishburne), who had made his criminal reputation in 1920s Harlem, returns from jail upset by the white incursion into the trade. Meanwhile, powerful mobster Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia) worries that Schultz’s numbers-racket war may be bringing too much attention to bear on organized crime; even as he continues to do business with Schultz, he schemes to take over the latter’s operation. In the end, Johnson and Luciano form an alliance, and Schultz is bumped off. This plot line, though embellished, is mostly based on reality.

Dutch Schultz and Lucky Luciano are renowned figures, staples of crime books and studies. But who was Bumpy Johnson? And what are the major discrepancies between the film’s portrayal of him and the record? Though he may have been overlooked in white newspapers of the time and in subsequent histories of the era, Johnson was certainly notorious. When he died in 1968, New York’s Amsterdam News called him “Harlem’s most famous underworld figure.” The film, though, exaggerates his role in several instances and gives no hint as to what happened to him after the numbers battle was over.

For starters, Hoodlum elevates Johnson’s importance at the expense of Stephanie St. Clair, a k a Madame Queen (Cicely Tyson), an immigrant from Martinique who became a numbers millionaire, and for whom Johnson went to work after his release from jail. In the film, Madame Queen effectively drops out of the picture when she is sent to jail in 1934. But Karen E. Quiñones Miller, a staff writer at the Philadelphia Inquirer who is writing a book on Johnson, says that while St. Clair was in fact imprisoned for eight months, it was during 1929, before the fight started for control of the Harlem racket.

On-screen, St. Clair is depicted as being scared of Schultz, and Johnson has to fight in her place. In life, she was less passive. Paul Sann, former executive editor of the New York Post, writes in Kill the Dutchman!: The Story of Dutch Schultz (1971) that St. Clair herself stood up to Schultz, even asking city officials to crack down on his racket. “It’s Schultz’s life or mine,” St. Clair reportedly said. “Dutch’s men know I am the only one in Harlem who can take back from their boss the racket he stole from my colored friends and they know I’m going into action.” And in 1935, when Schultz was dying in a Newark hospital, having been gunned down in a mob hit, St. Clair sent a Western Union message: “As ye sow, so shall ye reap.” That telegram is omitted from the script, which has Schultz dying immediately after being shot.

T hat’s only one of several inaccuracies in the film’s portrayal of Schultz’s murder. Viewers are left with the impression that Johnson orchestrated the killing. Fishburne’s Johnson plays Roth’s Schultz off against Garcia’s Luciano, effectively duping Luciano into slaying Schultz. In life, Schultz’s murder was ordered by the national criminal syndicate formed by Luciano and the famed mobster Meyer Lansky. agree that the main reason Schultz was killed was because he’d recklessly threatened to rub out special prosecutor Thomas Dewey, who was after him for tax evasion and racketeering. He’d even proposed the hit to the syndicate, which rejected it: The mob couldn’t afford the attention such a murder would bring.

Hoodlum’s Dewey (William Atherton) bears little resemblance to the real prosecutor, district attorney, governor, and failed presidential candidate. Most glaringly, he’s shown taking cash from Luciano, some of which is meant to prevent him from going after Schultz. This never happened, and there’s no evidence that Dewey was corrupt. In fact, it was Dewey who later successfully prosecuted Luciano on prostitution-related charges.

S ince the film ends with Schultz’s death, it leaves little indication as to what became of Johnson. And it implies that the Harlem racket reverted to local control. The Encyclopedia of New York states that, after 1935, Luciano and Lansky took over the Harlem racket. Johnson’s role remained an important one, but he was definitely not his own boss. In Black Mafia: Ethnic Succession in Organized Crime (1974), Francis A.J. Ianni writes, “Johnson essentially worked as a middleman for the Italian syndicate. When a black wanted to buy a franchise to establish a numbers bank, he went to Bumpy.”

As for Johnson’s character, the movie depicts him as a gangster with a heart, but a gangster nonetheless. At one point, he throws cash to people in a local soup line. At another, the mother of a teen-ager murdered while in Johnson’s employ sobs, “People call you a hero … you’re just a common thief,” reminding us of the violence he brought to his neighborhood. Quiñones Miller says that, though Johnson’s reputation in Harlem was mixed, he was known for taking care of the community: “Bumpy made the Italians give money to neighborhood charitable organizations.” When Johnson died in 1968, of natural causes, Jimmy Breslin wrote a column, calling him a Robin Hood of Harlem.

According to Helen Lawrenson, a former Vanity Fair editor and Johnson’s self-proclaimed ex-lover, this is a romantic view of him. In her memoir, Stranger at the Party (1975), she quotes the New York Daily Mirror on the news that he was sentenced to six-to-10 in Sing Sing: “Harlem is in a state of rejoicing that his reign of terror is over.” But she also quotes the Amsterdam News, which says that Johnson was “welcomed like a conqueror” when he came back to Harlem in 1963 after doing time in Alcatraz and other prisons. The film ends with the camera zooming toward Johnson’s eye until the screen becomes more and more grainy and ultimately black, as if to suggest that settling the big questions of who Bumpy Johnson really was and what he meant to Harlem may be beyond its range. After all, it’s only a movie.