"Either you're somebody, or you're nobody..."
“American Gangster” is powered by the American dream. “Either you’re somebody or you’re nobody,” Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) says as he dips into a deep well of capitalist spirit to build on the lessons taught him by his mentor, Bumpy Johnson. Contemplating the vacuum left by Bumpy’s death, Frank grabbed an entrepreneurial notion, developed a product line, insisted on quality, and became the dominant force in the field. His huge success might have been Big Pharma. Instead, it was the international heroin trade. The first African-American to rise to the top of the American underworld, Lucas became the controlling presence in the Harlem drug trade and managed to eclipse his main rival, The Mafia.
Across the river in New Jersey, Brooklyn boy Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) lived his version of American success: Earning a law degree from Seton Hall along the way, he became a detective in the Essex County prosecutor’s office where he rose to head the narcotics squad. Beginning in 1975, he built a Federal drug charge case against Frank Lucas. In a cesspool of corrupt cops, lawyers, and judges, Richie patched together a team and a plan.
Those are the bones of the real life story. The fictional one, hewing closely to reality, stars Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas and Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts. Characteristically, each of these fine actors submerges himself entirely in his role allowing us to sink into the heart of the story. We aren’t spectators for long.
Before any opening credits, the screen explodes as Frank tosses a match on a gasoline soaked flunky. In an instant we know this man is ruthless. No one will cross him. In dress, speech, and stature, Washington wraps Frank in a package of elegance and grace that leaves us unprepared for his periodic brutality. Washington is not just convincing; he’s superb. Ruby Dee gives a quiet and lovely performance as Frank’s mother. Russell Crowe’s Richie Roberts is a masterpiece of understatement and confusion from a man who is anything but. He wades through Richie’s disorganized mess of a life, a picture of a man with a clear goal submerged in a tangle of impractical detail.
Richie discovers rank corruption in the U.S. military leaving the audience with the feeling of “why didn’t I know all this was going on?” Drug dependency among U.S. soldiers during the Vietnam War is merely one of the things that didn’t receive wide press play in the 70s. The size and scale of Frank’s multimillion dollar drug distribution was another. Finally, Frank drew a sentence of 70 years, but the afterword to all this is as compelling as the story itself. Read it carefully at the end of the movie, and then watch for a replay of the real Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts being interviewed by Charlie Rose on PBS. They throw a fascinating light on the shadow culture that surrounds us even as we think we are free of it.
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