American Gangster (Ridley Scott, 2007)


Denzel Washington (Frank Lucas), Russell Crowe (Richie Roberts), Josh Brolin (Detective Trupo). Screenplay by Steven Zaillian. Directed by Ridley Scott. Rating: 18. Running time: 157 minutes.

Denzel Washington is in Harlem again, and like before he’s rebelling against the state. No longer is he doing so in the name of civil rights as Malcolm X, though. Now he’s Frank Lucas, drug lord and runner of the whole neighbourhood, at a time when the police weren’t really police at all. Nobody gets in his way as he sells everyone their fix; only Richie Roberts, the one sincere cop in the whole of New England, is trying to bring him down.

It would be misleading to imply Frank lives the superfly high life. Whilst making a fortune from his powder, ‘Blue Magic,’ bought directly from the Vietnamese jungles themselves and shipped back in war coffins, Frank owns 5 apartments spread over Manhattan and yet lives as traditionally, conservatively and quietly as possible – eating in the same café every morning and attending Church weekly with his North Carolinian mother. It is a moment of madness, incited by his model wife, that causes him to gather heat. Front row seats for the Ali-Fraser fight at Madison, accompanied by a $25k chinchilla coat, is far from the behaviour of an unknown law-abiding citizen.

He considers what he does to be legitimate. After all, why should a man who as a child watched his cousin be lynched by the so called ‘police’ have anything but contempt for law enforcement? He happily buys them out, and the extent to which corruption clearly infiltrated the American police system is frightening to say the least.

All this is shot, quite magnificently, by Ridley Scott. American Gangster really does feel like the dark side of New York, from those high-rise gloomy flats where the heroin is mixed to the wet and grotty streets. We’re given constant reminders, too, of what Frank’s luxurious life is built upon. Straight after scenes of him sharing thanksgiving with his extended family on a grandiose mahogany dining table, we see footage of his ‘customers’ passed out in dirty bathtubs with needles on the floor.

It was a dirty existence built upon what was already a bad time for America: Vietnam made the activities of people like Lucas possible, and American Gangster‘s portrayal of him is fascinating. It captures his actions and their effects with perfection, and Richie Roberts’ longstanding and eventually successful quest to take him down.

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