Five years after their powerful collaboration on Deep Cover, director Bill Duke (A Rage in Harlem) and Laurence Fishburne pool their talents again, this time on a crime story loosely based on the true-life exploits of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Fishburne), king of the numbers racket in 1934 Harlem—at least until Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) muscles in on the business while Johnson is away in Sing Sing. Also involved in the intricate power plays are Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia), Johnson?s partner Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson), and Thomas Dewey (William Atherton), while the major fictional characters include Johnson?s cousin and best friend (Chi McBride) and his idealistic girlfriend (Vanessa Williams). Clocking in at 142 minutes, this is an ambitious effort to re-create Harlem in the 30s; Chris Brancato?s script supplies a provocative character study of a killer with a Robin Hood streak and only occasionally takes on more than it can handle. The grisly violence (most of it suggested rather than depicted) overwhelms the story in spots, but the interracial politics in divvying up the spoils of a city remain fairly lucid. Duke is a superb director of actors, and, as in Deep Cover, Fishburne manages to suggest a lot with a deft economy of means.
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