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Sunday, November 04, 2007

American Gangster

I don’t have much to say about the new movie American Gangster from acclaimed director Ridley Scott (A Good Year). I guess it’s because I grew up in Las Vegas and I spent a lot of time surrounded by gangsters, the real kind, and they aren’t what I’d consider my kind of people. Oh sure, they didn’t call themselves “gangsters” any more than they used the terms “Mafia” or “The Mob” but even at eleven or twelve I knew enough to figure out what was going on around me. Daddy Dearest worked in a casino, but there was no way on his salary that he could afford the lifestyle he lived other than by doing “favors” for his friends. These were friends named “Angelo”, “Dominic”, and, yes, even “Guido.”

Guido was my Dad’s second-best friend next to a no-neck wide receiver named Rocky. Rocky and Guido spent way-too-much time at our house and came and went at the oddest hours, often dropping off everything from the newest model television sets and fanciest diamond jewelry to stylish fur coats and even shiny new cars and then leaving with suitcases of what were “none of my business”, as my father would tell me with the back of his leather belt if I ever asked. Apparently neither was any of the booty that collected in the garage any of my business because even if something showed up that I coveted for myself it was inevitably gone within a day or two with no explanation. Guido giveth and Guido taketh away. Poof! And then the cycle began again. It’s amazing what you come to regard as “normal” when you are young.

In this way, my adolescence and Frank Lucas' adulthood are a lot alike. Frank is the character played by Denzel Washington (Déjà Vu) in American Gangster, which is based on his real life story, kind of like this blog is based on mine only without guest stars or the big pay days. Anyway, American Gangster begins with Frank’s last days as the assistant to Harlem’s number one drug lord, a man known by the single name Bumpy (an uncredited Clarence Williams III; The Blue Hour). When Bumpy dies, Frank realizes that he is in the position to step up and take over the territory previously run by his mentor, but he isn’t interested in answering to the Italian mob as his predecessor had done. He also has his work cut out for him in establishing his turf with other local black rivals hoping to take advantage of the situation, but he handles that problem in a very public and shocking manner that makes his point bloody well clear and ensures his rise to the status to the top of the heap unchallengeable.

What transpires over the course of the next two hours and forty minutes is a family drama that is more Manson than Walton family as Frank brings his seven brothers up from their family home in North Carolina to become apprentices within his empire. Before he can do that, though, he does what others in the drug trade consider inconceivable. He flies to Thailand and travels into the deepest jungles to secure a deal with Thailand’s major supplier of heroin (Ric Young; Oy Vey!) directly so that he can cut out the Mafia directly in his distribution network, thus becoming the first African American big-time drug lord in the world. Like this is an achievement worth making a movie about?

In case you are wondering where Russell Crowe (3:10 to Yuma) fits into all of this, no, he does not play one of Washington’s long lost brothers, the white sheep of the family. He is, in fact, Richie Roberts, the good New York City detective (the only one, apparently) who is saintly enough to turn in nearly $1 million in cash he and his partner have found in the trunk of a drug dealer’s car (his partner, natch, wants to keep the bucks), and is rewarded for his honesty with a cold shoulder by his fellow boys in blue for being a chump and setting a bad example for everybody since it means their graft will now be under more scrutiny than ever before. Their thanks is to basically make his life on the force one big suckfest, even to a point of putting Richie in dangerous situations and then “conveniently” having no available back-up within miles when it is most needed (you just know this movie is going to be a fan favorite amongst the NYC Police Department and their families). Frustrated, Richie accepts a new job heading up a super-duper undercover drug unit set to root out the heroin trade AND any hanky panky connected to it within the police department. Oh, and just so Crowe gets something to do besides play cop, there’s a whole other sub-plot about Richie and his wife Laurie (Carla Gugino; Night at the Museum) in the midst of an ugly divorce. I guess Scott felt that if Washington’s Frank Lucas was going to include a family story then so should Crowe’s Richie Roberts.

For me, the movie’s greatest asset, and sadly underused, is the glorious actress Ms. Ruby Dee (All About Us) as Frank’s mother. Ms. Dee, at 83, is such a powerhouse that she commands everyone’s respect and I defy anybody who has ever been in her presence not to immediately refer to as “Ms. Ruby Dee” at all times rather than simply calling her “Ruby Dee.” I had the honor of working with her and her now-late husband Ossie Davis 27 years ago (!) and I thought she was older than God back then, but when she stepped on that stage at Radio City Music Hall in New York, the nearly 7,000 people in the audience silenced in a second. You could have heard her breathing in the last row it was so quiet. She just has that quality about her. The years may have robbed her of the love of her life, but certainly not of her amazing presence, and when she gives her “son” an ultimatum late in the film, it is the most honest moment in the movie and puts her in a class far and away above those Academy Award winners Washington and Crowe. They could learn a few things from her, but, then again, from her perspective, they’re just kids.

American Gangster is sweeping and grandiose, especially if you like watching women get slapped around, guys getting shot in the head, close-ups of heroin being injected into arms and between toes, and hearing the infamous “N word” batted about like a Kleenex in a hurricane. In other words, it is a Hollywood blockbuster in the making, but it doesn’t bring anything deeply profound or new to the table for those wanting to understand what drives the criminal or police minds. In many ways it is a sad reminder of how awful Harlem became after its glorious heyday in the 30s and 40s, when the Apollo was the place to be.
Instead of leaving audiences with any feelings of hope or good will towards what is now a resurgent landmark neighborhood moving beyond its image of a drug-infested ghetto, there are none. And that is American Gangster’s worst flaw of all. Few enough movies are made by top directors with big budgets, large African American casts and the potential to reach crossover audiences of every race. How sad that the best Hollywood can then produce is the tired message that black people are all drug addicts, thieves, abusers, and murderers and the only chance for their salvation (and everybody else’s) is naturally going to come from the tough but honest white guy.

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