“Either you’re somebody or you ain’t nobody” says Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas through Denzel Washington in American Gangster. In Frank Lucas’s particular rise to sombodyness it took a high body count, not only of fellow gangsters, snitches and foul ups but also hundreds upon hundreds, probably thousands over the years, of heroin ODers in Harlem alone.
American Gangster takes place in the seventies. You can’t miss that it’s the seventies. Every time a TV is present and on so is the Vietnam war or Nixon. There’s also the bad haircuts and polyester suits and wide collar shirts. And there’s the huge black mustaches straight off the faces of the Village People. The cars are big and clunky gas guzzlers. The undercover cops all look like Serpico. NY street scenes look decayed and raunchy. Everything has a depressing grittiness to it; you just know that if you were to see a scene in the subway (which you don’t) the cars would be covered by graffiti. But the direction and layout and photography and props are so good that it’s as if you’re looking at the movie from the seventies. This is Abe Beame’s murky deteriorated NYC. It certainly doesn’t have any of the clarity or discipline of Giuliani’s or even Bloomberg’s city.
Starting off, Frank Lucas is a killer and collector for gangster Bumpy Johnson—the King of gangster Harlem. Bumpy taught Lucas everything he knows but when Johnson dies from a heart attack Lucas takes control and collects on old debts and takes Bumpy’s kingdom to a new level. He carries out his business tasks with a gifted executive’s efficiency, though one enforced by gun play. Lucas never forgets Johnson. Later in the movie, when Lucas is showing his Puerto Rican beauty queen some of his photos of Martin Luther, Jr. and Johnson it’s the latter that he praises the most highly.
Lucas is normally cool-headed (except for when he gets mad, like in the scene where he bashes a man’s head with the heavy lid of a grand piano), and likable, very likable. Denzel Washington smoothly dichotomizes that personality’s twin elements: capital C Chrisma with that of the killer businessman. Washington’s facial change is eerie when the dichotomy turns in a second, like dark matter instantly absorbing a bright star. Of course he only morphs to darkness with his own people when they do sloppy work, like not being vigilant enough. But it’s his engaging personality and demeanor that stand out in the movie. Lucas is no jive-talking superfly. He’s engaging, no matter how many bodies you know lie behind him and no matter how you won’t feel satisfied until he and his organization are finally brought down. Call it the Jesse James syndrome if you will.
Lucas not only takes over Harlem from rival gangsters, or at least takes over an extremely profitable part of it, shooting a particularly nasty one in the head right on the street in broad daylight in front of a street full of people (a carefully planned business move, mind you), but makes the well-entrenched Italian mob look like small fries. Frank Lucas can put 500 guns in the street if he has too, and all he has to do is say the word.
Lucas’s business savvy, and foundation of his wealth, becomes apparent when he starts buying his keys of heroin direct from Thailand, from the Golden Triangle, going there himself several times (something he didn’t like doing; the place was too unAmerican) to arrange deals. Lucas, in cahoots with a cousin in the military (a well placed NCO), makes his payoffs directly with the heroin suppliers. Select military personnel are paid off and the keys of heroin are loaded in specially constructed caskets that fly home to the states along with the bodies in military transport aircraft. (There was once, according to Lucas, though not shown in the movie, a bunch of keys sent home on Henry Kissinger’s transport plane because no other large planes were available at the time.) Throughout the operation there are plenty of greased palms.
American Gangster uses scenes of violence sparingly, as if they’re brutal symbols implanted throughout the two and a half hours. In fact the movie opens with just such a symbol.
Lucas’s drug business is a family affair: he brings his brothers and nephews and mother from North Carolina up to Harlem. He has also set his mother (Ruby Dee) up in a mansion. Frank Lucas’s business takes off–Big Time, eventually a million dollars a day. He has so much cash he hides his petty stuff, maybe a few hundred thousand, maybe a few million, in boxes and bags (one such huge amount is found under a dog house). The real money he treats with more respect. It goes into off shore accounts and into properties and front businesses. Chase Manhattan managers even launder money for him. Of course his business success is boosted by a corrupt police force who, for the right price, turn their collective gaze the other way. The more successful Frank Lucas is the more successful of course the cops are too in lining their own pockets. In fact, the only way you can tell some of these guys are cops is that they flash their badges when they want somebody’s attention.
Before the system can catch a Frank Lucas it needs an honest cop. Enter detective Richie Roberts portrayed by a stocky boyish faced (made extra boyish by a seventies haircut–think Chekhov from Star Trek or Davy Jones from the Monkees) Russell Crowe. Richie has a reputation of honesty which doesn’t sit well with fellow cops. He once turned in a million dollars he found in a drug runners car trunk. Yes, that’s honest (most people, myself included, would’ve taken at least a couple of big handfuls). Roberts is a stressed man who sweats a lot; his wife is divorcing him and wants custody of their boy, and on Thanksgiving he’s reduced to eating a sandwich with crunched up potato chips on it (comically juxtaposed against Lucas having a huge turkey feast with his family).
One reason Roberts is stressed, that is, aside from his bad marriage, is because an honest cop out of Newark doesn’t get backup when he needs it, which can really make you sweat. Another stress factor is when he finds out his trusted partner has gone bad and later turns up in the morgue. It’s only when Richie gets to work with the Feds in an early version of the Drug Enforcement Administration (the DEA) that things turn around. Through surveillance and snitches, and fellow cops he can trust, they eventually track down the marketer of Blue Magic, Lucas’s brand name for his high-quality heroin bags that are sold on the street; keys are sold to other dealers like Nicky Barnes (played by Cuba Gooding Jr.), another huge operator in Harlem, known as Mr Untouchable. Along with his special squad of honest cops (that’s what makes them special) he eventually brings the downfall of not only Lucas but dozens of corrupt cops.
Not every scene takes place in Harlem or the NJ-NY axis. There are several exotic scenes that take place in and were shot in, Thailand, including skimpily attired go-going bar girls and very naked back room massage girls. Then there’s the jungle outpost in the golden triangle where poppies grow like cotton, supervised by a former Chinese general from old Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang.
The movie is an intense point-counter point between Lucas and Roberts, and the movie’s length–some two and a half hours– is fairly evenly divided between both characters who don’t come directly into play with each other until three quarters of the way though.
Towards the climax there is an intense shoothout in a projects building where heroin cutting and processing is done by a group of naked, except for surgical masks, women.
If Lucas was a businessman, which he was, then could the movie then have been called American Businessman instead of American Gangster? Theoretically yes, but then people heading to the movies might just unsuspectingly think this is the story of Ken Lay. Imagine their surprise. Of course unlike Lay, Lucas is still alive and kicking (though sentenced to 70 years his sentence was reduced to fifteen for his collaboration in pointing out other drug dealers, including bad cops–he served seven and lived those in deluxe style) . Frank Lucas worked as a creative, efficient CEO in a very dark, murderous, destructive context and you have to wonder, if he hadn’t operated in a segregationist society, if his context had been vastly expanded, would he have become, say, a Ken Lay? Would he have started Enron and become a financial gangster instead of a drug gangster? Maybe. On the other hand, maybe he would’ve been a regular intrepid CEO, like Jack Welsh of GE perhaps. Who knows.
I suppose you can say the real attraction of this movie is the simple horrible fascination we experience at witnessing a corrupt, violent, destructive world that we don’t have to live in. And even though this is some parallel universe in another time, in our voyeurism we get the satisfaction of seeing the bad guys finally going down and its charismatic kingpin humbled before the law (though without losing any of that appealing charisma).
The script idea for American Gangster came from a New York Magazine article by Mark Jacobson from a 2000 issue; it was called The Return of Superfly and can still be read online. You can also read a 2007 dialog between Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes, moderated by MarkJacobson, The Lords of Dopetown. The excellent script was written by Steven Zallian (“Schindler’s List”). The movie’s directed by Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down, Gladiator).
The real detective Richie Roberts has his say. Incredibly, Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas are friends and “talk almost every day, and they usually meet once a week at Mr. Roberts’s expansive law office here. Mr. Roberts also is the godfather to Mr. Lucas’s son, Ray, 11, and helps to pay for the child’s education.”
Update: here’s an opposing view from a NY Times blog.
Update: The History Channel has a documentary called, appropriately enough, “American Gangster,” about the very subject of the movie–but more graphic, less concerned with the art of script. It’s a $1.99 on iTunes (it runs about forty-five minutes).