American Gangster is writer Steven Zaillian and director Ridley Scott’s interpretation of the life of Frank Lucas, the richest, baddest heroin dealing black gangster in early 70’s Harlem. Based on the “true events” reported by Mark Jacobson in a 2000 New York Magazine article, Zaillian and Scott envision Lucas as drug dealing CEO, a pressed-suit smooth operator whose entrepreneurial insight was to deliver a better product at a lower price by working directly with the manufacturer—here, Chiang Kai-shek’s defeated army—to an emerging market, Vietnam veterans and depressed urban ghettos.
Some critics have declared it the “first entry in the Oscar race,” this year’s The Departed-style gritty, violent urban epic. Still, though American Gangster currently scores a 78% “Fresh” rating from Rotten Tomatoes, many reviewers, as with The Departed, are respectful, but politely dissenting on “message” grounds. The enthusiastic reviews run along the line of “What a powerful piece of entertainment!” Typically, the dissenting reviews echo this line (thus the overwhelming “fresh”), but question the film’s moral footing.
These reviews usually acknowledge American Gangster’s dark ironies and stark capitalist critique, but don’t see enough “weight” to be a true urban epic. They prefer to write the easy review, saying, well, this is superior Hollywood craftsmanship, it ain’t no Godfather and Ridley Scott ain’t no Coppola or Scorcese. Fair enough, but the film’s moral footing is a lot steadier than it’s being given credit for, and, in context, Frank Lucas is a much more frightening and damning outgrowth of American society than Tony Montana, perhaps even than Michael Corleone. The problem is that most critical reviewers are looking back at past gangster movies to evaluate the film. But just like Frank Lucas did the Mob, American Gangster has left these critics behind: Ridley Scott and company have created the first post-gangster movie.
Some critics seem disturbed by the fact that past urban gangsters in film have become worshipful icons, creating an uncomfortable feeling for American Gangster because they feel the movie encourages hero worship of Frank Lucas. A typical example of this kind of hedging “entertaining, but” critique is Owen Gleiberman’s Entertainment Weekly review, which bestows a tomato-fresh “B.” Gleiberman praises Ridley Scott’s craftsmanship, specifically the “grit and clutter” set design and “pointillistically” and “coruscating” scene structure. Gleiberman’s problem is with composition of gangster Frank Lucas: Denzel doesn’t “transform”; he’s all “dour nobility” and “might be playing a senator, or Malcom X, all over again.” Gleiberman correctly diagnoses the “weirdly upbeat” ending, noting that movie gangsters have indeed become “role models.” Gleiberman’s problem with Scott’s role model gangster is that he “set out to create one.”
Gleiberman’s criticism begs the question: A role model for whom? One assumes Gleiberman is referring to the Mafioso rapper obsession with Scarface, et al. If Gleiberman thinks Ridley Scott created a poster-able icon to hang on the walls of wannabe Jay-Zs, he’s only half-right. Mafioso rappers idolize movie gangsters because they see themselves as the new urban kings, the modern incarnation of the glamour-thug. The landmark album of the genre, Jay-Z’s Reasonable Doubt, brags on the rapper’s criminal prowess, his hustlin’, and his materialist obsessions, spiced up with cigars-and-fedoras, Capone and Corleone inspired imagery.
So, yes, Jay-Z turned Tony Montana into an idol. But look at Reasonable Doubt with deep focus: The entrepreneurial insight of Shawn Corey Carter is that the machine gun fantasies of Scarface have an enduring marketability to both urban and suburban kids. Carter was a thug with legitimate street cred as a drug dealer in a violent Brooklyn housing project who re-invented himself as Jay-Z, a profitable caricature. As Steve Huey points out, Jay-Z understands that “bad behavior gets in the way of making money.” So, he sublimated his legit past at the Marcy Projects into an above-ground business and became “hip hop’s most notorious capitalist” by starting his own label.
In fact, Jay-Z released a concept album based on American Gangster, correlating his life to the character Denzel Washington played in the film—as Jay-Z calls it, his “indie-film version of American Gangster.” Sometimes Jay-Z leaves character on the album, breaking into a third person omniscient narrator that sounds like a critic, to remind us that rappers are actors, “DeNiros in practice, so don’t believe everything you hear,” before unleashing a torrent of “gangsta rap stereotypes filled with swearing and violence.”
In the face of controversy over rap’s role in the increasing violence and degradation of society, Eminem launched an entire album in his defense, which is the tact Jay-Z has taken here. Critics have leaped to the defense of such top-shelf rap, arguing that the teen audience is mistaking “gritty realism” for “role modeling,” and you can’t blame the artist for that.
Which brings us to Gleiberman’s murky criticism. He can’t possibly be arguing that American Gangster’s Frank Lucas isn’t a role model for rappers—Jay-Z produced a concept album based on the character. The other alternative is that Scott means for the audience to take Frank Lucas as a role model.
But, how is that possible when Scott expends so much energy showing us the devastation Blue Magic wrought on Harlem? Why else would Scott take the time to show us the needles plunged deep into the rotting, blackened forearms, with all the close-up clarity of Requiem for a Dream? Why else linger on children crying next to dead, overdosed mothers in empty apartments? Why the depressing images of Vietnam soldiers shooting up in the disease and squalor of south Asians brothels? Why the demoralizing shots of housing project dwellers looking out from their windows, literally trapped in rusty cages like the dog pound or a third-world chicken coop?
Scott smash cuts from these images to portraits of Lucas in his upscale home in the suburbs, or waiting patiently in his $1000 business suit reading the paper over breakfast. We see needles plunge, and then bam, there’s Frank out-charming every guy in the ballroom, walking out with the classiest, most demur lady at the party. Arms rot, then we see Frank sipping expensive wine in front of his fireplace.
This is the dark irony of Frank Lucas. He’s not a role model, unless you’re one of the, say, stockbrokers from Boiler Room swindling life savings from desperate husbands, or the Enron trader who laughed “Burn baby burn. That’s a beautiful thing” during a California wildfire. Frank Lucas’ peer group isn’t Bill Gates and Warren Buffet; it’s Ken Lay and Nicholas Brookes. The Enron guys who bragged about stealing $250 a megawatt hour from Grandma Millie might see the amoral capitalism of Frank Lucas in heroic terms, but does Gleiberman have such contempt for the audience that he thinks we will too?
Ridley Scott’s method of contrasting these images is the cinematic shorthand for what the real Frank Lucas says about his role in the degradation of Harlem:
When asked about the relative morality of killing people, selling millions of dollars of dope, and playing a significant role in the destruction of the social fabric of his times, Frank Lucas bristles. What choice did he have? he demands. "Kind of sonofabitch I saw myself being, money I wanted to make, I'd have to be on Wall Street. On Wall Street, from the giddy-up. But I couldn't have even gotten a job being a fucking janitor on Wall Street."
If Frank Lucas is a role model for anybody, it’s not African-Americans yearning to get out of the ghetto. Scott brings home this point during an exchange between Lucas, his brother, and his nephew in the backyard of Lucas’ mansion:
Nephew: I don’t wanna play baseball no more.
Huey Lucas: Frank, we got a problem.
Frank Lucas: (looking at the nephew) Well, what do you want?
Nephew: I want what you got, Uncle Frank. I wanna be you.
Denzel looks down ever so slightly, just for a brief moment, and then smiles. Chiwetel Ejiofor, as Huey, opens his eyes wide—this is not the life he wants for his son. Denzel gives us a glimpse of the internal life of Lucas: He understands that too, but he’s never going to show anyone any weakness or doubt. Not even his family—especially not his family, because he needs trustworthy lieutenants to run his operation, and here’s the next officer. Scott puts forth dark ironies: No, we don’t want to see him carry on the family business, no, we don’t want to see the next generation become successful. Not this way. Ejiofor’s expression douses any sense of Frank Lucas as a role model.
This point is lost on David Denby, who disparages the characterization of Lucas as not just a role model for black youth, but also as a captain of business. Denby chews up three pages of The New Yorker pondering the message of American Gangster. Much of his review is lavish praise of Scott’s craftsmanship: “Pack(ing) as much as he can into corner of shots,” “shap(ing) even the most casual scenes decisively,” and several dozen words about Scott’s focus on how Lucas wipes a table under a damp drink and replacing it with a coaster. Still, “none of th(e) devastation alters the approving portrayal of Frank.” Denby goes further: The “shallowness of his characterization” asks viewers to consider why “it’s better that…Harlem w(as) destroyed by black gangsters rather than by Italians.” Denby disparages Scott’s presentation of Lucas’ ascent not as a “cruel joke,” but “as a long-delayed victory of black capitalism.”
But this is precisely the punch line of the cruel joke.
In fact, this Scott sets up the joke in the very first extended sequence of the film. (The first scene is Lucas setting a man on fire, which could be a joke on the torture-happy cop from a previous Denzel movie directed by Scott’s brother.) Lucas started out as the right-hand-man of Bumpy Johnson, then the king of the Harlem drug trade. Near death, Bumpy and Frank amble into a department store. Bumpy laments the development: America got “too big,” he says. Big stores “cut out the middle man” and “lack personal service,” where business men like him “take care of people.”
In other words, if Bumpy is Sam Walton, then Frank Lucas is his David Glass. Like Glass, Lucas took the Bumpy’s structure and thought it through like a modern CEO: Buy direct from the manufacturer, outsource to cheap foreign labor, bring efficiency to the supply chain, keep costs down and make your products indispensable to the consumer. Like Wal-Mart, Lucas priced his competitors out of the market, either putting them out of business or making them work for him. A mom-and-pop outfit like Nicky Barnes’ (a fat, sloppy, and effective Cuba Gooding, Jr.) simply can’t survive the ruthlessness of Frank’s Blue Magic. Seeing rank’s ladies cutting his heroin in the nude (so they won’t pocket any of the product) conjures the image of women in blue vests being blackmailed into staying beyond their clock-out time. But, hey, it keeps costs down and profits up, right?
Frank Lucas himself says as much in the New York Magazine article:
A couple of days later, eating at a T.G.I. Friday's, Lucas scowled through glareproof glass to the suburban strip beyond. "Look at this shit," he said. A giant Home Depot down the road especially bugged him. Bumpy Johnson himself couldn't have collected protection from a damn Home Depot, he said with disgust. "What would Bumpy do? Go in and ask to see the assistant manager? Place is so big, you get lost past the bathroom sinks. But that's the way it is now. You can't find the heart of anything to stick the knife into."
There’s a certain dark poetry to Lucas’ language: the corporate big box store has no heart, people are lost in side the walls, there’s no life to knife. At least with the Mafia, you can send them to jail. But corporations are soulless, created on paper and are moved only by the bottom line on that paper. American Gangster’s Frank Lucas wasn’t the end of the Mafia; he was the beginning of the megacorp.
Michael Sragow of the Baltimore Sun makes a similar point in his review, dismissing Lucas as “little more than a straight arrow pointed in the wrong direction” and a “soul of simplicity.” But, again, this is what makes him such an especially frightening figure—and a damning indictment of American-style capitalism.
The fact that Lucas has adopted the costume of a straight arrow is supposed to represent progress. It stands in contrast to the Sopranos-style velour-and-gold-chains stereotypes of Italian mobsters. If Frank Lucas is a role model for anybody, it’s for the barons of Big Business who ruthlessly cater dangerous products to a ravaged, vulnerable market, and see absolutely no moral qualms about it. In other words, Frank Lucas isn’t a role model for black youth; he’s a role model for Ivy League MBAs who don’t give a damn. He’s less Superfly and more David Glass.
Again, this is precisely what makes Lucas a deeply frightening figure: A man of extraordinary gifts and charm, boldly putting his outside-the-box ideas into action in a self-made entrepreneurial venture, in pursuit of the good life for his family—what could possibly be more American than that? The fact is, Lucas knows that his “business” is destroying the community, he just chooses to compartmentalize his guilt, or worse, he simply doesn’t care. This simplicity of soul makes him more dangerous. A tragic figure, in the dramatic sense, battles his conscious, and his eventually undone by the struggle. The amoral man simply plows ahead without remorse—without a conscious, there’s nothing to stop him, only the end of the market. This makes him, truly, an American Gangster.