The Stopless author recounts the world that Nicky Barnes thrived in
In the true-life story of a Harlem's notorious Nicky Barnes, a junkie turned multimillionaire drug-lord, Mr. Untouchable takes its audience deep inside the heroin industry of the 1970s. The most powerful black drug kingpin in New York City history, Barnes came from humble beginnings to make himself and his comrades rich beyond their wildest dreams, ultimately reaching national infamy in 1977 when the New York Times put him on the front cover of their magazine with the headline "Mr. Untouchable".
We recently had the chance to talk with Memoirist Wanda Lee Robinson, a former acquaintance of Barnes and expert on the underworld of this era. She discussed the man and the environment he thrived in.
Ultimately why do you think Nicky Barnes was able to rise from junkie to millionaire? That is no easy so feat so this man must've been pretty darn intelligent in some regard, right? Could you talk about how he was able to change his situation?
Wanda Lee Robinson: From my experience, the best drug dealers were the ones who never touched the stuff. That way, they had control, not falling prey to the very addictions that destroy others. Once a heroin addict himself, Nicky Barnes recovered from his addiction and had insight into the addict's mind; in particular, the addict's willingness to do almost anything to get high.
I would think this insight gave him a sense of control, and control is very addictive. New York City in the seventies was so gray and grim that heroin and other drugs were an attractive escape. He knew this and capitalized on it, all for money and power.
How do you think he feels looking back on everything? Does he have many regrets?
Wanda Lee Robinson: I'd say Nicky Barnes's only regret is that he got caught. He was a poor black man, and there weren't many options for him. He did what he knew.
How do you think the underground environment in Harlem has changed from the late 1970's to now?
Wanda Lee Robinson: Black power has risen, but now there are gangs and a hell of a lot more guns. Oddly enough, even with the gentrification of Harlem and lots of white folks living up there, I'd have felt safer in the seventies.
New York has always had a reputation for being tough. I lived there for the first 4 years of my life so I can't really say, but I have always heard about it being a rough place in parts. I was wondering how "Disney-fied" do you think it really is now?
Wanda Lee Robinson: Again, there's so many more guns and swagger throughout. Yes, Manhattan has been Disney-fied, but if you want to get the sh*t scared out of you take a subway train to East New York, or Washington Heights.
Why do you think people are so interested in men like Nicky Barnes? Either in real life, fiction books, film, etc? Because had this person been a saint we probably wouldn't be talking about him... I was just curious what you think it is about these sorts of people that intrigue others?
Wanda Lee Robinson: Nicky Barnes did the impossible. He made millions on his own terms. It's the American Dream. We'd all like to make lots of dough on our own terms. By watching someone else do it, we live vicariously through him. Nicky also fit the gangster image that Americans are so fascinated with as well. He's a guy's guy and the kind of rough, street smart man that women are drawn to. The combination of all these traits together is what's intriguing.
Are you looking forward to seeing American Gangster? What is your take on that film vs. a real life documentary like Mr. Untouchable?
How did you come to know Nicky Barnes and what are your personal impressions of him?
Wanda Lee Robinson: I chronicle an encounter with Nicky in my memoir Stopless [pg. 85]. I ended up in the same Harlem scene as him, at an afterhours club called the Sugar Shack on 135th Street. I was partying at the club, and when he walked in the whole atmosphere changed. I was both awestruck and terrified at the same time. It was as if Moses had entered the room. That's the kind of power he emitted.
Mr. Untouchable comes to theaters on October 26 from Magnolia Pictures.
CLICK HERE to order Wanda Lee Robinson's memoir Stopless!