American Gangster, by Albert W. Vogt III

Recency bias is a real thing.  It is also understandable.  The only time and place with which we can ever hope to come to grasp in any meaningful way is the here and now, and even then we can never know it as God does.  There are some things that will always be beyond us, and coming to terms with this fact is the beginning of wisdom.  Unfortunately, not everyone thinks this way.  With inflation, the threat of World War III, and lingering effects of the COVID pandemic, our existence is filled with seeming reminders that the sky is falling.  As a historian, this is what makes period pieces so interesting.  I am sure I have said this in discussing other films, but I am often asked if I could choose any historical period in which to live other than modern times, which would it be?  My answer invariably is no.  Give me a point in the past, and I will tell you what was wrong with it, or more specifically, what would kill you.  Today’s film, American Gangster (2007), is no different.  It takes place a little more than a half century ago, but who here is signing up to live in the greater New York City area at the time during which these events happen?  Not this Catholic film reviewer.

Need any more proof that the late 1960s were bad?  American Gangster opens with one of our two main characters, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), pouring gasoline on another person, lighting him on fire, and then shooting the enflamed victim a few times for good measure.  Frank is the driver and right-hand man for Harlem crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III).  When Bumpy dies of heart attack, it is Frank that takes over his operation.  On the other side of the law you have our other main character, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).  He is a New Jersey state detective who is studying to be a lawyer.  In the meantime, he and his partner, Javier Rivera (John Ortiz), find almost a million dollars in the trunk of a car during one of their busts.  There is an argument between the two as to what to do with it. Javier reasons that if they turn it in, they will become pariahs with their peers.  Richie does not seem to care about this, and decides to bring it to the proper authorities.  Meanwhile, Frank is not making many friends of his own, particularly because he sees the way crime is being done in Harlem.  He decides to bring his brothers and cousins north to work for him, and then he begins to move in on other boss’ territory.  Frank’s main competition is a former Bumpy associate named Tango (Idris Elba), who is also trying to fill the power vacuum left by Bumpy.  Frank murders Tango in the street one day, settling that matter.  His next move is to get in contact with another cousin currently serving the United States in the Vietnam War.  It is there that the poppy fields are found, the plant from which is derived the awful narcotic we know as heroin.  Frank’s idea is to go directly to the source and cut out the middle men that street hustlers like those in his organization have to deal with in order to conduct their illicit business.  By securing his product without the need of other criminal entities, Frank is able to build his own empire.  He even uses the coffins of dead servicemen killed in Vietnam to transport the raw materials from Asia.  While Frank establishes himself, Richie’s life seems to be falling apart.  His wife, Laurie (Carla Gugino), files for divorce and takes their son with her to Las Vegas.  Richie finds that he cannot put up much of a fight because he has some questionable ties with the mafia, though they are simply people with whom he had grown up.  The worst, though, is when Javier calls him in the middle of the night panicking because he had shot and killed someone in his apartment.  Javier claims that he had done so in self-defense, but it becomes apparent to Richie that Javier has been getting into drugs.  Javier gets defensive, claiming that no one will work with him after they turned in the money.  When Javier eventually overdoses, it prompts Richie to start his own narcotics unit.  This is how he becomes acquainted with the new form of heroin that Frank is putting out on the streets.  Thus far, Frank has been successful mostly because he does not invite attention.  This changes when he lets himself be convinced to wear a flashy coat to the first Muhammad Ali-Joe Frazier title bout in 1969.  Richie, in particular, wants to know who it is that could have those kinds of seats, shake former champion Joe Louis’ hand, and yet they had never heard of this guy?  His investigations start bringing his team closer making an arrest.  Richie figures out how Frank is bringing in the drugs, and eventually the self-made crime boss is arrested at church.  Initially, Frank is defiant.  What gets him to change his mind is for Frank to cooperate in taking down crooked police officers in the area.  In turn, they work together in building cases against a number of cops and detectives, leading to wholesale arrests of dishonest law enforcement members.  We close with Frank walking out of jail in the 1990s.

It is difficult for this Catholic reviewer to root for either of the protagonists in American Gangster, and this is part of the overall griminess of the era the film portrays.  It may be focusing on the rise and fall of an American born criminal, but the real story seems to be about getting rid of untrustworthy cops.  Perhaps I should add that these events are based on a true story, though it does not help with the dirtiness of the movie.  You may be thinking that Richie would be the one for which to pull.  However, during the divorce and custody trial, he is having sex with his own attorney (Katherine Strickland).  I get that not everyone is going to be the altar boy Catholic that I want to see in my cinematic heroes.  And I will credit Richie for turning in the money when it is obvious that he and Javier could have gotten rich.  One of the things the Bible says about honesty is that its truest form comes when you can maintain this attitude when no one else sees you because, after all, God is always looking.  Then there is Frank.  I suppose there is something to be said about the fact that he honest about being dishonest.  There are other characters, such as New York City detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) who attempts to extort Frank.  Detective Trupo represents the problems that Richie is fighting throughout the movie.  Cops like Detective Trupo hide behind the badge in order to profit from their privileged position.  Frank, too, attempted to put on an air of respectability, underscored by the fact that he is arrested at a church.  Then again, church pews are filled with sinners of all kinds.

American Gangster gets the times right that it depicts.  New York City then was not a pleasant place to be, and that comes through in many of the shots.  As a native Chicagoan, I do not know why anyone would want to live there at any time, but that is my Second City, chip-on-my-shoulder attitude I have towards the Big Apple talking.  At any rate, it is a quality movie, though rated R, with all the kinds of material you would expect from such a film.  Having said that, I should clarify that the quality pertains more to the performances than anything else.

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