American Gangster (2007)

Rated R. Our ratings: V- 6; L-5 ; S/N-4. Running time: 2 hours 37 min.

I will sing of loyalty and of justice;
to you, O LORD, I will sing.
I will study the way that is blameless.
When shall I attain it?
I will walk with integrity of heart
within my house;
I will not set before my eyes
anything that is base.
I hate the work of those who fall away;
it shall not cling to me.
Perverseness of heart shall be far from me;
I will know nothing of evil.
Psalm 101:1-4

Moreover I saw under the sun that in the place of justice, wickedness was there, and in the place of righteousness, wickedness was there as well. 17I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked, for he has appointed a time for every matter, and for every work.
Ecclesiastes 3:16-17

Cop and gangster finally meet.
(c) 2007 Universal Studios

Just as the writer of Ecclesiastes could be describing Denzel Washington’s criminal Frank Lucas, so the words of the Psalmist could be those of Russell Crowe’s lawman Richie Roberts, were he a religious man. Theses two actors head up an impressive cast in this sweeping story set during the last half of the Vietnam War era. The film also includes some cogent commentary on the racism of the time as it chronicles the rise of the first black man to achieve a measure of power equal to that of the then dominant Mafia.

For a little over fifteen years Frank has served faithfully Harlem crime lord Bumpy Johnson as his driver, collector and enforcer. When Johnson dies of a heart attack and others try to fill the void left by his death, Frank begins his rise by traveling to Vietnam where he makes deals with corrupt US service men to transport back to the States the pure drugs which he buys from a Chinese war lord up-river in Thailand, thus cutting out the middle man and selling a better product at a lower price than his competitors. An example of good ole American business practice. And when a dealer tries to shortchange him Frank makes him an example by shooting him in broad daylight with dozens of stunned witnesses close by. Everyone gets the point. However, although Frank is utterly ruthless, he yet has a touch of mercy in him (maybe because he always takes his mother to church), as we see at the very beginning of the film: he douses a man with a liquid and sets him on fire, then quickly puts him out of his agony by shooting him. (What a way to get an audience’s attention!)

Across the river in New Jersey no one wants to work with honest cop Richie Roberts when he turns in almost a million dollars that he and his partner seized during a drug arrest. The corrupt cops are no doubt upset to be cheated out of their cut, and also are afraid that Richie will turn on them. His honesty thus becomes costly, making him a pariah on the force, and his dedication to the law costs him his marriage and his close relationship with his little son. Despite this, Richie perseveres, even attending law school at night. Finally he comes to the attention of higher, honest authorities when Pres. Nixon declares war on drugs, thus providing federal funds to those who really want to stop the drug trade. Richie is chosen to form his own team, by-passing the corrupt cops of New Jersey, as well as the Special unit of the even more corrupt New York Police Department.

As Frank brings into the business his family from North Carolina (he settles his mother, wonderfully played by Ruby Dee, into a Tara-like mansion in the suburbs), Richie and his team are profiling all the known Mafia members to figure out who is bringing in all the new dope that is so cheap, and so strong that hundreds of addicts are dying on over doses. No one thinks that Frank is more than a mid level criminal, he keeps such a low profile, especially after he meets and marries Puerto Rican beauty-queen wife Eva (Lymari Nadal). Frank dresses in Brooks Brothers suits, rather than the flashy style of lesser black gangsters with their huge gold rings and chain necklaces: he even chides one of his brothers for sporting a shiny suit, ordering him to dress less conspicuously. However, Frank slips up when he accepts from Eva and wears a striped fur coat to the 1973 Ali-Frazier fight. Richie is there photographing the Mafia dons, the latter upset because Frank has been able to obtain seats closer to the ring action than they had. Spotting the showy coat, Richie snaps Frank’s picture, thus providing the photo that only much later will suggest to the lawman the identity of the top drug lord he has been pursuing.

As some critics have pointed out, Frank’s story could be that of a successful Wall Street business man building a large corporation as he innovatively goes to the source of his product and ingeniously works out a method of transporting it to the States (in the coffins of returned US service men!), and then gaining a monopoly by selling a purer, cheaper product than any of his competitors. He even sets up a trade mark, “Blue Magic,” and when another dealer sells an inferior product also labeled “Blue Magic,” he confronts the competitor with far more force than any lawyer suing an offender in a court of law. Even when at last he is arrested and he and Richie finally meet, Frank is the confident businessman certain that he can negotiate a deal that will satisfy both parties. Thus Richie is faced with still another moment of great temptation. Director Ridley Scott has delivered to us a gripping tale of two very different men that despite its over two and a half hour length never drags. Plenty for Bible students to ponder amidst the violent events of this fact-based film

For Reflection/Discussion

Contains several spoilers.

1) What admirable qualities do you see in Frank Lucas? How are all his acts, such as his giving out turkeys at Thanksgiving, calculated to enhance his image? And yet others, such as his devotion to his mother, genuine?

2) How do the frequent TV clips add to the texture of the film? How does the racism of the times blind the law officers, hindering them from discovering the identity of the man responsible for the flood of new drugs into New York City? What irony do you see that it was the flashy fur coat that contributed to Frank’s undoing? What does Frank do with that coat?

3) How does the film agree with many critics of the Vietnam War that the conflict contributed greatly to the corruption of American society?

4) What do you think of Richie Roberts as a “hero” ? What are two characteristics that help define him? What does his honesty cost him? His perseverance or dedication to law enforcement? How are these like “taking up the cross” ? We are given little to go on as to what sustains Richie: what do you believe it might be?

5) What are the three hymns that prominently play a part on the sound track? What seems to be their effect” Ÿ While “A Mighty Fortress” is playing we see Frank offer table grace at the family Thanksgiving dinner. But what else do we see? What pays for the rich lifestyle his family enjoys—yes dead addicts overdosing on his product.

Ÿ During “How Great Thou Art” we see Frank, Eva, and his mother attending church. Of what is this an example of, which Jesus condemned so strongly? Do you wonder if the pastors of the church were aware of him, and how they might have dealt with contributions that he made to the church? How might you deal with a criminal attending and contributing to your church?

Ÿ How does “Amazing Grace” fit the scene in which Frank emerges from church to discover that all cars but his have been removed from the street, with the cops waiting for him? Note how it swells a
s we see the arrests of the other family members of his gang?

6) What do you think of Mama Lucas’ attempt to make her son mend his ways?

7) What do you think of Frank’s cool attempt to negotiate his way out of the charges against him and a long imprisonment? Of his recounting of the horrible death of a family member in North Carolina? Of what at last what Richie agrees to and is able to accomplish?

8) What do you think of Frank’s argument that eliminating him would not solve the drug problem? How is this frequently a rationalization—that if I don’t do it, someone else will?

9) How is the fate of corrupt and brutal Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) an example of the dire fate that the psalmists and prophets declare will befall evil doers? How is at best human justice far short of the justice celebrated by the Scriptures (see such Psalms as 10 and 94 as well as the one quoted above).