By Don Simpson | March 30, 2009
Director: Ridley Scott
Writer(s): Steven Zaillian, Mark Jacobson
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ted Levine, John Hawkes, RZA, Carla Gugino, Cuba Gooding Jr.
Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) got his start as the lackey/driver for Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), the most powerful and well-respected gangster in Harlem (previously portrayed by Lawrence Fishburne in The Cotton Club and Hoodlum and Moses Gunn in Shaft and Shaft’s Big Score). When Bumpy passed away in 1968, Lucas picked up where he left off. He recognized the growing heroin market in Harlem, and decided to cash in on the craze. With the help of his cousin’s husband, Nate (Roger Guenveur Smtih) stationed in Bangkok during the Vietnam War, he shipped immense cargos of pure heroin from Vietnam to the U.S. — thanks to the aid of U.S. military personnel and transport.
By cutting out the middleman, Lucas was able to offer his Harlem clientele a pristine product of incomparable quality for a significantly lower price than any of his competition. At a time when the Italian mafia and New York City police department controlled drug trafficking with an iron fist, Lucas quickly developed a heroin monopoly that forced his predominantly Caucasian competition to work for him or give up.
Lucas’ keen business sense and entrepreneurial spirit was based on everything he learned from Bumpy. By ways and means completely contrary to capitalist theory, he became a successful, respectable and honorable African-American businessman. He created a wealth and affluence that never existed in Harlem before, or any African-American community for that matter. American Gangster is a film about race. It is about a successful African-American figure that turned capitalism and the Caucasian-controlled “free market” on its head. Despite his trade (and the numerous overdoses and cold-blooded murders tied to him), Lucas was a good man.
The audience is constantly reminded that Lucas was a church-going family man (in the film, Frank is arrested while leaving church alongside his mother and wife). His family was living in poverty in North Carolina until he moved his mother (Ruby Dee) into a giant mansion in New Jersey and set his brothers up with important positions within his organization; his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was his closest confidante.
His relationship with his Puerto Rican wife Eva (Lymari Nadal) appears platonic and completely innocent. Lucas fell in love with her at first sight, and almost immediately took her home to meet his mother.
American Gangster goes to nauseating lengths to convince the audience that Lucas – and the cop hot on his tail, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) – are damn good men. Roberts was a good cop, at a time and place that those two words were complete contradictions. His moral career choices made him the “black” sheep of New York and New Jersey police forces (we are reminded umpteen times that he returned one million dollars that would have been better left unreturned for countless reasons). Officer goody-two-shoes was more than willing to rat out any fellow cop (including his partner). He was smart too (he even passed the bar exam). Roberts’ only flaw was his lack of dedication to his wife and son, but that was only because he was too good of a cop to let his family get in the way of his work (and extramarital affairs).
American Gangster is quick to point out that it is based on a true story. Adapted from a New York magazine story (“The Return of Superfly”) written by Mark Jacobson, Steve Zaillian’s script was in the hands of Brian De Palma, Antoine Fuqua and Terry George before fatefully settling on Ridley Scott’s lap. The real-life Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts served as consultants on the film (which may account for their cinematic representations’ overly redeeming qualities).
So what if Lucas was a heroin smuggler whose female workers were forced to slave in the buff (so they couldn’t steal the merchandise)? He was a smart dresser, good businessman and a nice guy. Who cares about the deaths associated with overdoses from his potent product and the people he brutally beat and murdered in front of numerous witnesses? Scott and Zailllan seem to think that doesn’t matter, because American Gangster is a film about race. It is about a successful African-American businessman who was able to outsmart all of his competition, including the Italian mafia.
Scott and Zaillan turn Lucas into a role model for the African-American teenagers of today. Just what the U.S. needs – more drug dealers, thugs and hoodlums. Heck, he doesn’t even get punished for his crimes! The true bad guys in this story are the bad cops. Lucas helped Roberts put away over one hundred of the big apple’s finest, and he received a significantly reduced sentence. (American Gangster fails to mention that Frank was promptly picked up on drug charges shortly after his first release from prison – the film concludes with Lucas getting released in 1991, which was actually when he finished serving his second prison term.)
Thanks to mere star power alone, American Gangster undeservedly promises to be the top box office draw for this weekend; but stars alone cannot make this a good film. This is hardly a watch–able mafia film. I disliked the glamorously choreographed ultra–violence of The Departed, but that was a much more powerful film than American Gangster. Like The Departed, the core audience for American Gangster is testosterone-fueled alpha males. Lacking any action, tension or worthwhile aggression, I think even they will exit the cinema unsatisfied. This is a character study lacking character development; an actor’s drama lacking a reliable script.
The dueling powerhouse of Crowe and Washington cannot save this overtly trite and sentimental script. What else would you expect from Zailllan, the man who penned the great Hollywood pinnacle of saccharine sentimentality at the expense of the real-life characters whose lives it was based upon (Schindler’s List)? Zailllan has a penchant for merely focusing on providing proof and justification that his characters are good (or bad) people, rather than giving his characters any true development or depth.