American Gangster (2007)

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American Gangster
Dir. Ridley Scott
Premiered October 19, 2007

I didn’t have the highest expectations for American Gangster. Ridley Scott may have directed some of the best movies ever made, but aside from his beloved throwback epics (of which Gladiator, Black Hawk Down, and Kingdom of Heaven are the good ones), he doesn’t have much of a signature style, and accordingly many of his lesser films that aren’t as immediately associated with him. And liked by critics though American Gangster was, advertising and discussion at the time gave the impression that it was little more than a common mafia film but with black people instead of Italians.

After watching the film, I realize that that in itself is notable, but it goes way deeper. Despite American Gangster sounding like a generic movie title, it could not be more apt, as the film unfolds into a fascinating examination of race and capitalism as they play into the American dream; one that seems even more relevant today than it did in 2007– and it’s all a true story.

In 1968, Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) is the Italian mafia’s point man in Harlem. When he dies of a heart attack, he leaves a small fortune to his driver and apprentice Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington). Despite Lucas’ humble origins, he witnesses the decline of black businesses as corporate chains take over, and comes up with an inspired idea: in the apex of the Vietnam War, he can use his military connections to import heroin directly from southeast Asia, selling a superior product with lower overhead costs. This quickly brings Lucas a level of wealth on par with a CEO, and he eagerly plays the part of a legitimate businessman, hobnobbing with the rich and famous along with his former beauty queen wife (Lymari Nadal) but never showboating. His success from “Blue Magic,” his purer, cheaper brand of heroin, causes him to run afoul of the old Cosa Nostra, as well as New York’s narcotics cops– almost all of whom are on the take and in the business themselves (led by Detective Nick Trupo, played by Josh Brolin).

One police officer who defiantly isn’t is Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Practically forced out of the narcotics beat due to his unwillingness to partake, Roberts is snatched up to become a key player in President Nixon’s newly declared War on Drugs. He and his team gradually realize that Lucas is somehow involved in the trade, but only Roberts himself is willing to believe that Lucas is at the top.

Unlike many other classic gangsters, Lucas prides himself on looking legit. He renounces the crass behavior of his rivals. He buys an old mansion imported from Europe brick-by-brick. He chides his reckless brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) for his garish style– though it’s sometimes hard to distinguish in a 1970s setting. When he confronts rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) over Barnes’ use of the name “blue magic,” he doesn’t talk about threats of violence, but of trademark infringement. He deals with government bureaucracy as well– he just does it outside the law. And, above all, he uses his newfound largesse to benefit his family and community.

Although the film doesn’t hesitate to show the devastating effects of his business, and although film has long drawn parallels between organized crime and the American Dream, Lucas’ seductive charm is not without its merit (though it helps that he’s played by Denzel Washington, of course). And when Roberts suggests that the War on Drugs isn’t really meant to stop drug use, it being too profitable to both the criminal enterprises and the criminal justice system, it’s not just a sigh of exasperation– it’s an object lesson in the benefits of free trade.

American Gangster never claims to be about race, but it necessarily is. As a black man making it on his own and paying it back to Harlem– a race man– he arouses the fury of the Italians and the narcotics cops who serve them, but they can barely do more than stand idly by while he steamrolls them with his superior intellect and leadership. But while Lucas continually faces prejudice, he also uses it to his advantage, as the authorities, in their refusal to believe that a black man could be a kingpin, constantly overlook him. Is it any surprise then that the only cop who believes in Frank Lucas’ empire is the Jewish Richie Roberts? Maybe not a member of the underclass, but certainly someone raised in a tradition of outsider status and lateral thought.

If that sounds dry and academic, fear not. From a patient and unassuming first act, American Gangster evolves into an unlikely thrill ride that continues to top itself in its monumental audacity, not through high-octane action or gore, but in how far the story ends up going, climaxing in a mesmerizing and long-awaited face-to-face between Lucas and Roberts. I don’t want to spoil it; just watch this movie. Shot in standard 16:9 ratio, American Gangster may not technically fit the bill for a Ridley Scott epic, but it sure as hell feels like one.

How Did It Do?
American Gangster grossed $266.5 million against a $100 million budget, earned an 80% fresh rating on RottenTomatoes, and was nominated for two Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actress (Ruby Dee) and Best Art Direction (Arthur Max and Beth Rubino). It’s somewhat fallen through the cracks among Ridley Scott’s output, even among his very hit-and-miss later years, but deserves to be remembered.

Next Time: Sarah Landon and the Paranormal Hour

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