Donald Goines (or, Growing Up Gotti)

The writings of Donald Goines, an African-American author from Detroit who was murdered in 1974, were at the center of a heated court case in Brooklyn, New York that ended in a not-guilty verdict last week.

Goines’ gritty novels enthralled Queens-based cocaine kingpin Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff while he served eight years of a twelve-year sentence for drug trafficking. Upon his release in 1995 McGriff made it his mission to re-invent himself as an entertainment mogul by producing movies based on these books. He befriended two younger record company entrepeneurs, Irv and Chris Lorenzo, who ran the Murder Inc. hiphop label. He acquired film rights to two Goines novels, Black Gangster and Crime Partners, and began working closely with the Lorenzo brothers, who styled themselves “Irv Gotti” and “Chris Gotti”, to get the films into production.

Snoop Dogg, Ice T and Ja Rule were in the cast of Crime Partners, but by the time production was completed there wasn’t enough money to spend on a theatrical release, and Crime Partners was released straight to DVD, gathering little attention from cinephiles, and too much attention from federal prosecutors, who viewed ex-con McGriff’s involvement as a sign that Murder Inc. was laundering money for known criminals.

The case went to court in Brooklyn earlier this year. Jay-Z, Ja Rule, Ashanti, Russell Simmons and others from the hiphop community came to show support for the Lorenzo brothers, as did a large contingent of family members. The prosecution’s case turned out to be surprisingly weak, and the brothers were cleared of all charges last Friday.

In essence, what was on trial in Brooklyn was the right of entertainment figures to hang out with criminals. There’s no doubt that the “Gotti brothers” tried to embellish their street cred by kicking around with a legendary neighborhood drug kingpin, but the prosecutors were wrong to assume that McGriff was leading his younger friends into a life of crime when in fact indications are that the brothers were trying to help their older friend establish himself in a legitimate business.

What seems dirty about this is that the federal government never seems to mind when white entertainment figures play the same game. It’s well-known that ex-convicts like Joey Gallo were employed to lend authenticity to Mafia movies in the 1970’s. There was a hilarious episode of the Sopranos about this a few seasons ago, in which young gangster Christopher Moltisante shows up on a fictional Jon Favreau movie set and is treated like a god.

The Lorenzo/McGriff case got a lot of publicity in recent weeks, but unfortunately the novelist at the core of the controversy got little play. Donald Goines is widely read among African-Americans, but his books are largely unknown outside that population. The rapper DMX starred in another movie based on a Goines novel, Never Die Alone in 2004, directed by Spike Lee acolyte Ernest Dickerson, and another Goines title, Daddy Cool is also in the works, though this film probably won’t smash through any racial barriers either.

2 Responses

  1. double standardFirst let me
    double standard

    First let me say, the linked article about Donald Goines is great. Goines’ work obviously fits into the underground/socio/gangsta galaxy.

    And yeah, I agree, there’s a double standard. When Scorsese and Di Niro made Casino, about the rea-life mobster Frank “Lefty” Rosenthal, they actually had Rosenthal and other convicted guys as technical advisors and nobody took them to court over it, as far as I know.

    What was that guy’s name who wrote In the Belly of the Beast while he was in prison, and Norman Mailer helped him get out of prison, and then the guy killed somebody? Did they ever take Mailer to trial for trying to help the guy (maybe they did, I don’t remember)?

  2. Hey Bill — yeah, you’re
    Hey Bill — yeah, you’re talking about John Henry Abbott. If I remember correctly, Mailer lobbied hard for his release from jail, which was great except that Abbott killed a waiter in a restaurant (with little provocation) very shortly after his release. I don’t think Mailer was ever charged with a crime, or could have been, and I have no idea what happened to Abbott, whose book I wasn’t much interested in anyway.

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