A Saga of Corruption, Heroin and Charisma: Ridley Scott Delivers Socko Entertainment in American Gangster

Running time 157 minutes
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Steve Zaillian
Starring Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ruby Dee

Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, from a screenplay by Steve Zaillian, is based on an 2000 New York magazine article titled “The Return of Superfly,” by Mark Jacobson. The title of the article was derived from one of the last and best manifestations of the short-lived black-controlled-and-directed drug-crime genres, Ron O’Neal’s Superfly (1973), a genre which had been launched only two years earlier by Gordon Park’s Shaft (1971). I say short-lived because black-power advocates of the period denounced the genre out of existence for tarnishing the image of blacks by suggesting that they were implicated in Harlem’s heroin trade. I can still recall being assailed, along with Roger Greenspun of The Times, by black power activist LeRoi Jones for finding delicious humor and hearty drama in black drug dealers. There seems to be no comparable degree of agitation in the 21st century over the screen image of African-Americans. This may be because so many African-American actors, like the stellar Oscar winner Denzel Washington, play both sides of the law for an ever-increasing African-American share of the ever-shrinking number of moviegoers. Besides, the never-ending racial-image game has shifted to the more widely watched television screen.

In any event, the real-life saga of Frank Lucas has taken several years to reach the screen from the time that the film’s eventual executive producer Nicholas Pileggi, who co-wrote the screenplays for Goodfellas (1990) and Casino (1995) with director Martin Scorsese, introduced the legendary crime boss and then ex-con Lucas to journalist Jacobson. Producer Brian Grazer entered the scene by optioning the magazine article, and meeting with Mr. Pileggi and Mr. Lucas for a possible film version of the Harlem legend. The rest is now stop-start-start-stop Hollywood history as screenwriter Steven Zaillian and director Ridley Scott ended up as the final creative combo, with Denzel Washington taking on the role of Lucas and Oscar winner Russell Crowe cast as Richie Roberts, the determined narcotics detective who brings Lucas down—and with him, a small army of corrupt narcotics detectives and Mafia kingpins.

Mr. Washington and Mr. Crowe constitute a richly ironic study in contrasts as, respectively, the well-dressed churchgoing family man, community leader and casually homicidal crime boss Frank Lucas, and the usually unkempt, womanizing failed husband and father, but steadfastly honest narcotics detective, Richie Roberts, who has forfeited the trust of his crooked fellow cops by returning a million-dollar haul from a drug raid up to the evidence room where it belonged. The charisma projected by both Mr. Washington and Mr. Crowe makes American Gangster the most felicitously magnetic dual vehicle of the year. It is also perhaps the most damning account ever of the longest and most disastrous war in our history, the 80-year war on drugs, which has jailed so many of our citizens while, in effect, enriching the criminal gangs around the world and multiplying the menaces of addiction.

Even so, the conjoined stories of Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts and their contemporaries would have been hard to believe if these stories had been purely and completely fictional. To imagine that packets of pure heroin were smuggled into the United States from Vietnam in the false bottoms of coffins containing the bodies of American soldiers killed in a separate futile conflict would strain the credulity of the most heartless shlockmeister.

Yet, this is what apparently happened in real life, with the attendant bribery of Army and Air Force officers and pilots. I always suspected that there was something wrong in the Vietnam War after the troops there reportedly booed Bob Hope on one of his intended morale-boosting visits, but I never realized until now that so much of the Army (as well as so many in the peace movement) were so high on drugs. Or that so many narcotics detectives were on the take from drug dealers like Frank Lucas. Is the situation any better and cleaner today? I don’t expect any movie to tell me if it isn’t anytime soon, as they did before this 1968-1975 scandal hit the screen.

Also hard to believe is that Lucas could put a gun to the head of a rival mobster and shoot him in broad daylight on a crowded sidewalk in Harlem, and walk back at a leisurely pace to the luncheonette table where he had been eating with his gang of brothers, without the slightest concern that any witnesses would come forward to point a finger at him. Could it happen today? Well, there are any number of hip-hop songs with the message “don’t snitch.” And there seems to be a profusion of guns at large just about everywhere. So who knows?

As for the percentage of narcotics detectives on the take today, do we ever know immediately how many people in our capitalist system are taking bribes? Still, I was taken aback by the extent of the corruption in American Gangster. Josh Brolin as Detective Trupo, the most aggressive member of a Manhattan delinquent narcotics squad in protecting his turf for his own profit, adds to his laurels from No Country for Old Men as the most venturesome of the antiheroes arrayed against the superkiller played by potential Oscar winner Javier Bardem. Of course, the odds are still stacked against evil characters, though after Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal Lecter, who can tell how depraved the Academy has become?

The long-esteemed actress and vibrant force for racial justice, Ruby Dee, now in her feisty 80’s, is alone worth the price of admission as no-nonsense Mama Lucas, who climactically slaps her by now fearsomely vengeful son, and directly diverts him from his utter destruction for killing even crooked cops. Right behind her is the gifted black British actor Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Huey Lucas, Lucas’ main man and younger brother, and Puerto Rican beauty Lymari Nadal as Eva, Lucas’ one and only. Cuba Gooding Jr. as Nicky Barnes, another of Lucas’ drug lord antagonists, and Armand Assante as Lucas’ Mafia partner, do not even begin to round out the huge cast of idiosyncratic performers from many branches of showbiz.

By the very nature of the genre, the males outnumber the females by a ratio of about 10 to 1. Hence, aside from Ms. Dee and Ms. Nadal, the only other actresses with more than walk-ons are Carla Gugino as Roberts’ neglected wife and KaDee Strickland as Roberts’ attorney and sexual conquest. By contrast, the respective members of the Lucas and Roberts entourages involve more than a dozen actors with much more than walk-on parts. Still, in the end it is the combined star firepower of Mr. Washington and Mr. Crowe that drives the two eventually merging sagas to a salutary law-and-order finale.

The bristling cinematography of Harris Savides, the lavish production design by Arthur Max, and the perceptively accurate costume design by Janty Yates have greatly assisted Mr. Scott and Mr. Zaillian in concocting one of the most dramatically explosive gangster movies in years. An added dividend is provided with the score devised by composer Marc Streitenfeld and music supervisor Kathy Nelson, with additional source music written and produced by Hank Shocklee. The trick was to exploit the flip sides of hit records of the late 60’s and early 70’s, thereby approximating the sound of the period without drenching the soundtrack with the familiar strains of golden oldies.

Accordingly, one must applaud American Gangster as the kind of socko entertainment many people thought Hollywood filmmakers had become incapable of. It is not to be missed. A Saga of Corruption, Heroin and Charisma: Ridley Scott Delivers Socko Entertainment in American Gangster