Directed by Bill Duke
United Artists Pictures
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.
Jared Hohlt is an editor at New York magazine.