I’ve been a fan of gangster films (with gangsters of most types), ever since I discovered Shadowrun when I was in middle school. So, I’ve become kind of familiar with the genre (though I’m not even going to pretend I’ve seen seen everything the genre has to offer). So when my Netflix recommendations popped up Hoodlums, I added it to my queue – as I had not seen a gangster film set in the classic gangster period featuring African Americans, and I was kind of hoping it would be a good take on the genre, and that it would portray it’s subjects appropriately.
The Premise: Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson has just gotten out of prison in 1936 (in the midst of the Great Depression) and has returned to Harlem where, he intends to get back into helping “Madame Queen” Stephanie St. Clair in running the numbers business (an underground lottery). However, Dutch Shultz has been muscling in on her turf, and has been getting the attention of district attorney Thomas Dewey, with Lucky Luciano (representing the Commission of New York’s mafia families) attempting to maintain order. Being that this is the kind of film that it is, things go out of control, and a gang war is waged across the streets of New York.
The Good: The acting from the gangsters (Tim Roth as Schultz, Andy Garcia as Luciano, and Laurence Fishburne as Johnson) is excellent. The writing is, in general, very good, with a few issues I’ll get into later. However, in general, the script is solid, and even manages to avoid a few of the gangster movies cliches (including the temper-tantrum from the anti-hero gangster when his wife/girlfriend/moll leaves him, by throwing the gifts he’d previously purchased for her at her while she tries to explains her reasons).
The Bad: The film takes some liberties with history that don’t totally rub me the wrong way, but do leave me shifting in my seat awkwardly. Schultz’s death is fairly well documented, and would certainly work on the big screen without the alterations made for the film (which actually weakens the character of Schultz more than what actually happened would). As it exists in the film, the sequence’s only purpose (aside from killing Schultz of course), is to make Luciano look like more of the tough guy, after being the diplomat for most of the film.
Further, rather than Schultz being killed for killing one of Luciano’s men, as is depicted in the film (as an act manipulated into happening by Johnson), Schultz was killed for plotting the assassination of Thomas Dewey, an act which would have brought far too much heat onto The Commission. Since Schultz had mentioned previously in the film that he’d wanted to kill Dewey, and that the film had established that both Schultz and Johnson’s actions were putting more pressure on Dewey to act against Schultz and the Commission, it wouldn’t have been difficult to set up, basically, a Xanatos Gambit where Johnson’s actions were planned to force the Commission to kill Schultz for him – as if he or his organization were to kill Schultz, it would bring the wrath of the Commission down on him. They’d already established Johnson as The Chessmaster, and used a chess motif at several times during the movie. The audience would buy into it. Further, if they were heart set on having a “Black Gangsters Outsmart White Gangsters” concept (which is perfectly fine) that would actually work better, because Johnson would be pulling off manipulation at the level of, at the most extreme, L (or Light Yagami), or at the lowest extreme, Michael Weston.
Oh, and they kill off Lillian Harris Dean (aka “Pigfoot Mary”), to cause angst for Illinois Gordan (who had Mary as his love interest), Johnson’s longtime friend and closest lieutenant, so they can have an argument about how violent Harlem has become and it’s not worth it, and he can storm off, so he can be tragically killed later. This bears mentioning because the real Pigfoot Mary died in retirement in California before the events of the film took place. It’s a cinematic Woman In Refrigerator.
The Ugly: This is more of a visual thing than a story thing, but it bears mentioning. In this film every black person, male or female, who isn’t a gangster or doesn’t become involved with gangsters has buck teeth. I recognize that at the time poverty is rampant, and not everyone could afford good dental care (hell, I can barely afford it myself). I’m aware that the skull shape of black people has certain differences from the skull shape of white people. But for Christ’s sake, you just had to go to a look that had them with buck teeth? Really? Because that’s not their actual teeth, it’s pretty clear that those are fake teeth made for the movie. Considering the talent you got, you’d think that somebody (say, Lawrence) would have said something, though it may have been too late in the game to bring up this complaint. Still, considering that one of the racist stereotypical images of black people has them with buck teeth, you’d think they’d have known better.
The Verdict: As a gangster film, this is perfectly acceptable, and an excellent example of the genre. It’s no Scarface, it’s no Little Caesar. But it’s still pretty good, and if you want your gangster fix, you could definitely do worse. I recommend it for at least a rental, and a purchase if you like it more than I did.
RPG Use: This is a new thing I’m going to try doing – if a film has it’s uses for a RPG campaign, I’ll bring up specific games in this section. Aside from TSR’s classic Gangbusters, and possibly Shadowrun, I’ve always felt that Gangster films and TV series (like The Sopranos), also work well as a resource and template for a Vampire: The Requiem (or possibly The Masquerade) campaign. Often times, the higher ranking gangers are physically older, and can also be out-of-touch with the times (the same with vampires). Drawing the heat of the police can be replaced through masquerade violations, and prison time could be replaced with Torpor. The main characters “crew” would be their cotarie.
Specific to Hoodlum, I’d say it works pretty well with Requiem, with the different families being represented by the different political factions. If you’re still using Old Vampire, bloodlines could work as well, and to a certain degree you could bring up the film’s racism angle in that respect as well.