xXx: Return of Xander Cage
The last forty minutes of the movie do come together in a pretty diverting way.
The business of crime is as much business as crime, as Martin Scorsese demonstrated in "Casino" by centering his story on a gangster who was essentially an accountant and oddsmaker. Now Bill Duke's "Hoodlum'' looks into the way the Mafia muscled into the black-run numbers racket in Harlem in the 1930s; this is a "gangster movie'' in a sense, but it is also about free enterprise, and about how, as the hero says when asked why he didn't go into medicine or law, "I'm a colored man and white folks left me crime.'' Of course that is not quite the whole story, but by the time Bumpy Johnson (Laurence Fishburne) says it, it's true of him: He's a smart ex-con, returned to the streets of Harlem during its pre-war renaissance, when music, arts and commerce flourished along with the numbers game. He hooks up with old friends, including Illinois Gordon (Chi McBride), who masks his feelings with jokes and introduces him to a social worker Francine Hughes (Vanessa L. Williams).
Francine sees the good in Bumpy, and encourages him to make something of himself, but Bumpy defends his career choice: "The numbers provide jobs for over 2,000 colored folks right here in Harlem alone. It's the only home-grown business we got.'' The game is run by Stephanie St. Clair (Cicely Tyson), known as the Queen of Numbers. She's from the islands, elegant, competitive. She takes on Bumpy as her lieutenant. The mob has up until now let Harlem run its own rackets, but Dutch Schultz (Tim Roth) moves in, trying to take over the numbers. His nominal boss is the powerful Lucky Luciano (Andy Garcia), who disapproves of Schultz because of the way he dresses ("You got mustard on your suit''), and is inclined to stand back and see what happens. He doesn't mind if Schultz takes over Harlem, but is prepared to do business with the Queen and Bumpy if that's the way things work out.
One thing that has kept the Mafia from attaining more power in the United States is that it has a tendency to murder its most ambitious members; the guys who keep a low profile may survive, but are not leadership material. Imagine a modern corporation run along the same lines. Bumpy is the far-sighted strategist who sees that it's better to talk than fight; Dutch is the thug who itches to start shooting.
This is Bill Duke's second period film set in Harlem, after "A Rage in Harlem" (1991). He likes the clothes, the cars, the intrigue. (In both films, interestingly, he didn't film in Harlem, finding better period locations in Cincinnati for "Rage'' and Chicago for "Hoodlum.'') He builds up to some effective set-pieces, including a massacre that interrupts a trip to the opera; in the payoff, Bumpy and the Queen listen to an aria while he has blood on his shirt.