Documentary filmmakers investigate Frank Matthews, 1970s East Coast heroin kingpin and Durham native

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IMAGE COURTESY OF RON CHEPESIUK
  • Image courtesy of Ron Chepesiuk

The life of notorious Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas may have gotten the epic, big-screen treatment with American Gangster, starring Denzel Washington as Lucas. But if you ask documentary filmmakers Ron Chepesiuk and Al Bradley, there was another black, New York capo named Frank that made Lucas look like small potatoes.

Chepesiuk and Bradley collaborated on The Frank Matthews Story: The Rise and Disappearance of America's Biggest Kingpin, which will be playing Friday at the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham. It's a fast-paced, investigative chronicle of Matthews, the Durham-born drug dealer who ended up controlling all the heroin dealings up and down the Eastern Seaboard in the early '70s. The only black drug lord to have direct ties with the famed French Connection drug pipeline, his Brooklyn-based operation stretched across 20 states, making him a target in the eyes of both the feds and the Italian Mafia. In 1973, Matthews went from gangster to fugitive when he jumped bail, supposedly taking with him $15 million–$20 million and a beautiful girlfriend, and hasn't been heard from since.

"I came across Frank Matthews and I was just fascinated by this story," says Chepesiuk, 56, a Canadian-born, true-crime journalist and author who has spent five years researching Matthews. "You know, a young, Southern kid goes north and makes it big as a criminal. And not only that—it follows some of the usual patterns—but he becomes an international dealer. And perhaps, I would say, the first, big, African-American drug dealer in history."

Chepesiuk got together with documentary filmmaker and music-video director Bradley (also known as "Al Profit") last fall to collaborate on the film. "For me, the crime story is interesting," says native Detroiter Bradley, 36, "but also the history of Durham and just looking at the conditions in America that allowed the stars to align in the late '60s and '70s—with the rise of drug use and the civil rights movement, etc.—all kind of coming together to allow this creation of the black super-gangster of the early '70s."

The pair traveled to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Durham, snagging interviews with friends and confidants, fellow black mobsters who did business with Matthews, and law enforcement officials who were (and still are) on the hunt for Matthews. They found that Matthews' legend has turned him into a real-life Keyser Söze, with those who knew Matthews—especially folks from Durham—not wanting to say much. Says Bradley, "You almost get the impression in Durham that people think he's on the outskirts of town, waiting to hear something bad about him and he's gonna come in and do something."

Even law enforcement officials gave cooperative but limited support. "They didn't want to give us too much information, and they certainly didn't want to give us and pictures or anything," says Bradley. "Whereas, you know, I did a documentary on the Detroit Mafia and one of the federal prosecutors gave us a box with, like, a hundred pictures in it and said, 'Do what you want. I don't care.'"

"He's an urban legend," adds Chepesiuk, "and that's one of the reasons why I thought it was important to do this project."

Bradley and Chepesiuk hope that these leery people will see the film (which is also available for sale and digital download at www.frankmatthewsmovie.com) and perhaps contribute to a second, more personal volume of the Matthews story they're planning to do. "We're hoping that once people see what we did with the first documentary," says Chepesiuk, "they'll step forward and be willing to volunteer information and to help us out to do a follow-up documentary, which would be even more comprehensive than the one we just did."

Of course, they also hope that this doc will get a certain someone out of hiding. Jokes Bradley, "Maybe Frank will show up [at Hayti] to defend his honor."

The Frank Matthews Story: The Rise of Disappearance of America's Biggest Kingpin plays Friday at 7 p.m. at the Hayti Heritage Center. Bradley and Chepesiuk will be in attendance for a post-screening Q&A. Admission is $5. For more details, call 683-1709 or go to www.hayti.org.

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