Wednesday, October 13, 2010
DVD Review: Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, In His Own Words
By Scott Tre
Documentaries can sometimes be needlessly lavish and overcomplicated affairs. They sport solid production values but have a superficial, glossed over feel. The surface is never penetrated and no real insight is ever offered. On the other end of the spectrum, many of the so-called hood/street documentaries that are all the rage these days are under-produced and unfocused. They are poorly edited and cobbled together collections of testimonials from burn outs. Such productions serve as a ghetto form of self-aggrandizement. Everyone, it seems, wants to immortalize the mythology of their hood. Ideally, the best documentaries find the "sweet spot" between these two disparate extremes.
Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, In His Own Words is a DVD documentary and companion piece to Ron Chepesiuk's excellent book Sergeant Smack: The legendary Lives and Times of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, and His Band of Brothers (you can read my glowing review here). It features exactly what the title describes: Leslie "Ike" Atkinson and only Leslie "Ike" Atkinson telling his own story. Vintage news footage and photos are interspersed throughout. Title cards listing milestones and achievements give perspective to many of the statements made. However, Ike's narration creates a more intimate vibe than any book describing his life's experiences could possibly conjure. In a very warm and matter of fact tone, Atkinson touches on key points that the novel explores in much greater depth. He talks about his early life in North Carolina, his tenure as a master sergeant in the United States armed forces, his propensity for gambling, and his trailblazing career as a heroin kingpin.
Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, In His Own Words was directed by Sergeant Smack author Ron Chepesiuk, who is like a ghost during most of the proceedings. He does double duty as the interviewer, remaining completely off camera. We are not allowed to hear a single question that Atkinson is asked for the first three quarters of the running time. Not until the final quarter of the film do we hear Chepesiuk's voice, and even then it is only a faint whisper emerging from behind the fourth wall. Gustave Flaubert once famously said "An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere". For the most part, Ron Chepesiuk holds true to that adage.
Seeing and hearing Ike Atkinson speak automatically dispels many of the misconceptions that viewers may have about what constitutes a gangster. Unlike many Hollywood depictions, Atkinson is not a charming rogue or a scheming strategist (at least not on the surface). He is also not a blood thirsty killer. Atkinson is simply a person who peeped every angle of the game and got in where he fit in. One suspects that his disarmingly "ordinary" nature is what allowed him to get as far as he did. Go to any black barbershop or church in America and you are likely to meet someone like Ike. He is likable, inviting, and able to suck you into a story very easily. Towards the end, Atkinson emerges as what very few real life gangsters do: A human being.
Frank Lucas is of course mentioned, but Ike's conflict with him is wisely not made the focal point. In fact, Atkinson is the most dismissive he has ever been in regards to the self proclaimed "American Gangster". The only real drawbacks are the synthesized musical score (a soundtrack full of oldies that recall the appropriate time periods might have worked better) and the truncated running time. Then again, this documentary is meant to be consumed with the book itself, or perhaps as a primer. They both serve to fill out the complete picture of Atkinson. A show like Gangland would undoubtedly provide slicker editing and a much more sensationalized account of Ike Atkinson's life, but the singular focus and subdued mood of Ike Atkinson, Kingpin, In His Own Words leaves the viewer feeling assured that he is indeed hearing the truth.