Based loosely on the life and times of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, American Gangster was an attempt to do for America’s black underworld what the Godfather films did for the American Mafia.
That director Ridley Scott falls somewhat short of that goal doesn’t detract from the value of this film. It’s not a classic, but it’s one of the best of this emerging genre, light years better than earlier works like New Jack City or King of New York.
Scott used a screenplay by Steven Zaillian to tell parallel stories about the business of dealing heroin and the business of investigating that business.
Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) and Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) are the entrepreneurial kingpin and the too-honest-for-his-own-good cop whose lives, we know, are eventually going to intersect. Both deal in worlds steeped in corruption. And both decide there is a better way to go about their business.
Lucas corners the heroin market in Harlem by cutting out the middle men and establishing his own supply and distribution networks. His is a basic Wharton School of Economics approach.
“I sell a product that’s better than the competition at a price that’s less than the competition,” he explains.
The product, branded “Blue Magic,” is high-grade heroin imported from Thailand. Most of it came into the United States during the height of the Vietnam War. Lucas traveled to Thailand himself to set up the supply system, and then brought his brothers and cousins up from North Carolina to handle sales and distribution in Harlem and in parts of North Jersey.
Interspersed with actual television news reports about the war and footage of press conferences from then-President Richard Nixon, American Gangster captures the chaotic mood of the 1960s as Lucas builds his empire—and the turbulence of the 1970s as he fights to keep it.
Roberts is a struggling Newark, N.J., police detective who finds himself ostracized after he turns in nearly $1 million in cash that he and a partner find in the trunk of a drug dealer’s car. Labeled a “fuckin’ Boy Scout” by less-honest fellow cops, Roberts catches a break when he is tapped by a supervisor to head an elite drug squad in New Jersey’s largest city. He is also attending law school at night and is involved in a protracted custody fight with his former wife Laurie (Carla Gugino).
Both Roberts and Lucas also intersect with the local wiseguys. Roberts’ boyhood friend is Joey Sadano (Ritchie Coster)—a character not unlike Joey Sodano, a Newark-based member of the Philadelphia mob killed gangland-style in 1996. He tries to steer Roberts away from investigating Lucas. It would be, he says, in no one’s best interest to pursue the investigation. But Roberts, after threatening his friend with arrest, continues full steam ahead.
Lucas, in turn, deals with Sadano’s uncle, mob leader Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) who suggests that Lucas would be wise to share the wealth and ease up on his monopoly control of the heroin market in Harlem. It seems like Assante has played this role in a dozen movies, but he’s always a pleasure to watch.
During a meeting at Cattano’s country estate—where both men wear tweed jackets with leather arm patches and shoot skeet—the mob leader cautions Lucas about his business tactics.
“What about your fellow dairy farmers out here, Frank?” Cattano asks. “Are you thinkin’ . . . of them?”
“I’m thinking of them, Dominic, about as much as they’ve ever thought about me,” Lucas coldly replies.
Frank Lucas lived his life and ran his business on his own terms, using violence whenever he felt it was necessary. Like the old-time mobsters who once dominated the underworld, he believed in maintaining a low profile and not calling attention to himself. The idea was to make money, not headlines. American Gangster makes that point again and again.
When his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) shows up at a party dressed like a pimp, Frank, in a conservative business suit, pulls him aside and asks, “What’s this?”
“This is a very, very, very nice suit,” Huey says with a smile.
“That’s a clown suit,” Frank replies. “That’s a costume with a big sign that says, ‘Arrest me.’ You understand? You’re too loud. You’re making too much noise. Listen to me. The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.”
Frank Lucas, who inherited the drug business of his mentor Bumpy Johnson and who clashed with rival kingpin Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.) emerges in American Gangster as a charismatic and complicated figure, not unlike Vito or Michael Corleone.
The contradictions in his lifestyle are captured in a series of vignettes that are reminiscent of the baptism scene in The Godfather. It opens with the Lucas clan gathered at the sprawling New Jersey estate Frank has purchased for his mother (played perfectly by veteran actress Ruby Dee). They are there to celebrate and share Thanksgiving dinner. As they join hands to say grace, the movie cuts to scenes of:
Roberts slapping a sandwich together in a dingy apartment.
Corrupt Det. Trupo (Josh Brolin), who has tried to shake down Lucas, answering the door at his expensive home to find a caged, live turkey on his doorstep. As he looks out to his driveway, his prized Mustang Shelby blows up.
Junkies in a squalid Harlem tenement shooting heroin into their veins.
The problem with a film based on real characters is its tendency to overhype or overdramatize. There is some of that here. Shortly after bringing his brothers and cousins north, Lucas is sitting in a diner in Harlem having breakfast with them and discussing business. In between bites, he gets up, walks out onto the street and shoots a rival in the head. Then he goes back to the restaurant to finish eating.
“Now, what was I saying,” he says as his startled family members look on.
The message the scene delivers to the country bumpkins: welcome to New York. It’s powerful, but over-the-top. No way, in Harlem or anywhere else, does a hit go down like that with the shooter calmly walking back into a nearby restaurant to finish his meal.
American Gangster was “one percent reality and 99 percent Hollywood,” a federal judge and former prosecutor who helped convict the real Frank Lucas told CNN after the movie was released. Judge Sterling Johnson Jr. said Lucas was illiterate, vicious and violent, “everything that Denzel Washington was not.”
Which is why we say the movie was “loosely” based on his life.
HIT: The soundtrack from Def Jam Records—featuring Bobby Womack, the Staple Singers, Sam & Dave and John Lee Hooker—is a perfect mix of blues and soul that evokes the 1960s and 1970s.
MISS: The custody battle between Roberts and his wife seems contrived—like a soap opera attempt to provide a back story that helps explain a troubled character. In fact, Roberts and his wife didn’t have any children when they divorced and he later complained about that element of the story line.
CASTING CALL: Benicio Del Toro was originally signed to play Roberts. After production delays, he dropped out. Crowe, who had worked with Ridley Scott in A Good Year (2006), was then tapped for the part.
BEST LINE: Lucas tells an associate, “See, you are what you are in this world. That’s either one of two things. Either you’re somebody or you ain’t nobody.”
BET YOU DIDN’T KNOW: The movie was based on the New York magazine piece “The Return of Superfly” written by Mark Jacobson and published in 2000.
PIVOTAL SCENE: Lucas shows up at the Ali-Frazier fight in a chinchilla coat and hat given to him by his wife. The get-up attracts Roberts, who is there taking surveillance photos. Up until that point, Lucas was a virtual unknown to the drug task force. After that, he became its prime target. (Lucas later throws the coat and hat in a burning fireplace, realizing he has violated his own low-key dictum and has paid a price as a result.)
REALITY CHECK: At the end of the film, Roberts, who now has his law degree, switches hats and becomes the prosecutor in the Lucas case. No state would permit an investigator to prosecute a case he has worked. The move is fraught with legal inconsistencies.
(In real life, Roberts spent several years as a county prosecutor before switching to defense work. One of his first clients was Frank Lucas, by then serving time in jail. That was permissible because the new charges against Lucas had nothing to do with the case Roberts had worked on as a cop.)
GOOFS: Lucas’ nephew is touted as a pitching prospect, a southpaw who wants a tryout with the Yankees. But when we see the kid playing catch at a family picnic, he’s throwing right-handed.
VIOLENCE LEVEL: High and brutal. The movie opens with a victim being tortured, burned and shot. It also includes the aforementioned street shooting and several other violent scenes.
BODY COUNT: Thirteen, but it seems like more.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”