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‘American Gangster’ and the Two Sides of Ridley Scott

Written by Eli F. on November 9, 2017 

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Looking back on this still-young century makes clear that 2007 was a major time for cinematic happenings — and, on the basis of this retrospective, one we’re not quite through with ten years on. One’s mind might quickly flash to a few big titles that will be represented, but it is the plurality of both festival and theatrical premieres that truly surprises: late works from old masters, debuts from filmmakers who’ve since become some of our most-respected artists, and mid-career turning points that didn’t necessarily announce themselves as such at the time. Join us as an assembled team, many of whom were coming of age that year, takes on their favorites.

There are at least two Ridley Scotts working in Hollywood. Ridley Scott, auteur — the man who revolutionized science fiction and horror cinema at the same time with Alien, who single-handedly resurrected the swords-and-sandals epic with Gladiator, who produced still the most rattling and relevant dramatic portrait of modern warfare in Black Hawk Down, who took a quarter-century of tweaking to profess satisfaction with his magnum opus Blade Runner — emerges about once a decade, leaving his indelible mark on motion-picture history before vanishing back into the ether. The rest of the time, the world sees Ridley Scott, workman, a filmmaker so technically capable and and exhaustively experienced that he can direct on autopilot, pumping out multiple big-budget studio films a year without breaking a sweat — or pausing for contemplation.

American Gangster is decidedly a product of the latter Scott, but not one without tantalizing morsels of artistic intrigue. Adapted from a screenplay by Steven Zaillian and inspired by a New York Magazine profile by Mark Jacobson, American Gangster is ostensibly the story of Frank Lucas, portrayed magnificently by Denzel Washington in a characteristic performance of icy-cool machismo and terrifying bottled rage. Lucas, a Harlem-based hustler and North Carolinian emigré, almost wholly seized the East Coast opiate trade during the Vietnam War before being caught and imprisoned for over 15 years. As both the film and its promotional materials from 2007 eagerly point out, he was, in his own twisted way, an African-American pioneer: through sheer cunning, ruthlessness, and amoral entrepreneur spirit, he carved out a swath of the American narcotics market that gave him unprecedented power and independence for a black businessman of the time — enough to challenge even the Mafia at the height of their influence.

Yet someone in the creative process on American Gangster, for some reason, felt Lucas’s story alone was not enough. Maybe the producers were in search of a compelling individual-level conflict, maybe they just wanted another big name on the marquee, or maybe someone didn’t think American audiences would abide by a story focused solely on a criminal antihero who was also a black man. Whatever creative impasse may have created it, woven throughout the film with roughly equal screen time to the titular gangster is the story of Richie Roberts, a white — and Jewish, though you wouldn’t know it apart from a mezuzah in his apartment and some 70s-tacky Star of David bling around his neck — cop-turned-DEA-investigator who led the task force responsible for apprehending Lucas, only to change careers to a criminal defense attorney with Lucas as his first client. With Roberts’ help, Lucas succeeded in greatly lessening his sentencing by testifying against corruption in the NYPD (embodied in the film by a villainous, sneering Josh Brolin). The unusual development of Roberts’ story does seem like intriguing material, but as scripted by Zaillian and played with an unconvincing Bronx patois by Russell Crowe, he doesn’t pull his weight against Lucas’s tale.

In theory, American Gangster‘s endeavor to frame Lucas and Roberts’ parallel narratives amounts to a strangely ambitious attempt at taking on The Godfather and Serpico in a single film, with a sociological connecting thread in the spirit of The Wire (Brolin’s corrupt gangster-cop weaves in and out of both plotlines long before Washington and Crowe ever share a frame). Yet its determination to treat both stories with equal interest leaves the film dramatically lopsided. Crowe’s half of the narrative consists largely of forgettable neo-noir cop film cliches: a lone righteous enforcer living on the edge, battling the simultaneously encroaching demons of crime, personal vice, and institutional corruption, struggling to stem the tides of moral decay from within and without. Scott, Zaillian, and Crowe bring nothing but sheer competency. Whatever its basis in historical truth — and few people familiar with its real-life subjects have commended American Gangster on its factual accuracy; Roberts and several of his former associates outright threatened Universal with defamation — Roberts’ story onscreen offers little as either social commentary or drama that wasn’t done earlier and better in the preceding four decades of American crime fiction. Perhaps extending American Gangster’s overstuffed story into a TV miniseries (an earlier version of the script was drafted by The Wire’s Richard Price) might have done Roberts justice; the half he’s given just doesn’t feel like enough to properly distinguish him or justify his competition for onscreen presence with Frank Lucas.

Lucas’s story, the movie’s Godfather-inspired side (complete with a climactic montage set to church music), comes dangerously close to proving unique in the pantheon of Hollywood gangland sagas. Ever since its infancy in the days of Howard Hawks’ original Scarface, the gangster melodrama has been one of the most celebrated and thoughtful vehicles in popular culture for critically examining the American immigrant experience. Thematic templates of ethnic identity versus assimilation, family versus enterprise, solidarity versus racism, the pursuit and attainment of a sometimes Faustian American Dream — liberation through capitalism — have carried consistently through two immensely popular Scarfaces, Coppola’s opus, and the postmodern musings of The Sopranos that closed out the century of American enterprise. All of these works have chronicled that century and that enterprise through the eyes of the once-downtrodden foreigners who it made Americans: Italian, Irish, Columbian, Cuban, Russian, Jewish, Greek. Curiously missing from this cinematic representation, as though erased from history itself, is the similar transformation of African-Americans. Though they had been a part of America for centuries longer, black Americans’ forced cultural isolation and voluntary mass emigration from Southern rural areas to coastal urban centers over the course of the century created an experience every bit on par with that of “true” immigrant groups, yet these stories remain largely unexamined by Hollywood.

It’s this void in the tapestry of American life on film that American Gangster so tantalizingly offers to fill. Its imagining of Frank Lucas’s story hits many familiar notes of the immigrant gangster tale, yet each one is enlivened by the unique historical and cultural context of black experience. Lucas is taught the ways of both honor and violent criminality from a beloved mentor,  “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), who passes on the reins of leadership (through death) as his kingdom enters a period of confusion. Taking the bold, seemingly crazy risks of a business visionary, Lucas travels personally to Vietnam to discover that he can exploit the region’s ongoing military quagmire to purchase and smuggle mass quantities of undiluted wholesale narcotics onto American shores, quickly creating a drug monopoly.

Even as he peddles poison to America’s underclass, the audience learns that Lucas, like Marlon Brando’s Godfather, is the feared and respected patriarch of an entire clan who he ships up from North Carolina to help manage his criminal enterprise. Washington’s best scenes place him opposite this family: younger brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor, one of several pre-stardom actors in the film’s supporting cast), a Fredo Corleone-like figure whose initial innocence is disastrously corrupted by a combination of his older brother’s intimidation and greed awakened by the lifestyle of fast-paced material wealth to which he is introduced. (In the film’s most satisfying scene for flat-out morbid cool factor, Frank decisively earns his brothers’ terrified, unquestioning allegiance by settling a financial dispute with a belligerent rival hustler (Idris Elba) in the most perfunctory manner possible.) Frank’s mother (the late Ruby Dee, Oscar-nominated for her work) is a seemingly delicate Southern belle whose true authority over the Lucas clan supersedes even Frank’s. Eva (Lymari Nadal), Frank’s Puerto Rican paramour-turned-wife, is seduced along with the audience by Frank’s aggressive charisma and glamorous wealth, yet never quite sits easily at his family gatherings. All of the people surrounding Lucas willfully overlook the morally horrific truths of his profession, finding the charm of his outward persona far easier to buy into — until the existential hazards of that profession become too intrusive to ignore.

From beginning to end, Lucas considers himself a businessman, taking such pride in his work that he even enacts exceptional measures to defend the brand-name integrity of his uniquely pure heroin. (Another highlight has him educating a shady nightclub owner, played by Cuba Gooding Jr., as to his particular notion of “copyright enforcement.”) But he only sporadically regards himself as a black man. “I represent no one but Frank Lucas,” he insists to Richie Roberts in an interrogation room, when Roberts suggests that his power and financial autonomy might be interpreted as a political statement on behalf of African-Americans by the Mafia or even the federal government. But the audience knows better. Time and again we see powerful white men write off Lucas on account of his race, figuring no black man could build the empire he did without direct help from whites. The greatest irony, it suggests, is that the only man with the ingenuity and respect to regard him as an equal is the one who brings him to justice.

American Gangster is by no means a great film, or even the best film made by anyone involved. Edited in a perfunctory, businesslike manner by Pietro Scalia and scored with lazy, Oscar-baity flourish by Marc Streitenfeld, it doesn’t sit anywhere near the cinematic heights of the Ridley Scott pantheon. But in its bloat of plot and attempted audience appeal, the kernels of a greater effort simmer and strive to escape.

An “unrated extended cut” on home video releases — notably not billed as a “director’s cut” — is one of many similar crimes against editing left over from the mid-2000s DVD era, bloating the film’s length from roughly two and a half hours to nearly three for the sake of numerous insubstantial, redundant, and tediously verbose scenes. The worst of these is the ending, when Frank Lucas is released from prison in 1991 only to step foot into the culture shock of a transformed Harlem. The “extended cut” finds him met by Richie Roberts on the street corner: older, grayer, fatter, but still dressed like an oddity on the corner between hippie and blue-collar worker. The two men engage in a meandering, directionless conversation as they march through the streets, and the credits roll abruptly, the film seeming to imply that they are about to start up a buddy-cop detective agency.

The “theatrical” ending, by contrast — perhaps the strongest single scene — seems to sum up what kind of treatment the film as a whole so desperately could have used. It begins the same way: Lucas emerges from prison in a wide-shot street surrounded by indifferent passers-by. But there is no Richie Roberts. No hasty cut to the next walk-and-talk dialogue beat; no audience reassurance of the protagonist’s fate. Instead, the camera silently lingers. Frank looks around, bewildered and off-balance for the first time, struggling to absorb a new America — a new black America, ravaged by the crack-cocaine scourge and the continuing cultural unrest of the 80s — that, for all his years of talk about “family” and “community,” he can no longer recognize. Public Enemy fades in on the soundtrack, wrathful heralds of a violent and uncertain future yet to come. And Frank, as the camera pans out, is dwarfed by crumbling urban architecture, now left to reinvent himself as a free citizen stripped of power and family both. Cut to black. It’s an infinitely more solemn and provocative ending, and hints at the kind of black American crime epic that the country, a decade later, still waits for.

Follow our complete retrospective on the best films of 2007.


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