American Gangster’s “Little Melvin” Williams and the Baltimore Hustle
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BET’s American Gangster series is one of the most fascinating documentary series currenly on television, applying a History Channel/PBS rigor to chronicling the lives of infamous African-American crime figures of the recent past, such as early Crips gang leader Stanley “Tookie” Williams and 1980s cocaine kingpin “Freeway Ricky” Ross. And like HBO’s devastating 2005 documentary of Los Angeles gang history, Bastards of the Party, AG turns a sober eye to a sector of the American experience far too clumsily misunderstood, commercially glorified, and otherwise sensationalized.
The Oct. 17 American Gangster turned its probing eye to Baltimore legend “Little Melvin” Williams, the West Baltimore crime figure reportedly responsible for turning heroin into a booming local business in the 1960s. His life story also anecdotally inspired several episodes and characters in The Wire; series co-creator Ed Burns was the Baltimore police officer who arrested Williams in 1984, and his series co-creator/writing partner David Simon was the reporter who covered the case for The Sun. (A West Baltimore drug dealer named Little Melvin also appears in Barry Levinson’s 1999 Liberty Heights.)
Both Burns and Simon are interviewed in Williams’ Gangster episode–Burns blithely recalls that it was Williams who developed a telephone keypad code for his runners, which appears in the The Wire–as are former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, former state senator Clarence Mitchell III, and other local church leaders and community members who recall Melvin’s storied rise.
Today Williams is active in the Bethel A.M.E. church and plays the Deacon on The Wire, but back in the day he was a highly intelligent young man who plied his mind to the numbers game and pool hustling, slowly working his way into the good graces of a local crime boss who midwifed Williams’ connection to New York drug supplies, becoming a local legend in the African-American community in the process. The episode recounts the still amazing anecdote about city leaders in 1968 asking Williams to go to Pennsylvania Avenue to try to quell rioters following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
BET luckily rebroadcasts these episodes throughout the season, and the series as a whole is required viewing.