DISCLAIMER: IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN THE MOVIE, DO NOT READ THE REVIEW.
In the midst of all the anticipated theatrical releases of 2007 - Saw IV, The Borne Ultimatum, The Simpsons Movie, Rush Hour 3, Pirates of the Caribbean 3: World's End, Spider Man 3, to name a few - one movie ranked supreme on the most wanted list. Two Academy-Award winners in the lead, an Academy-Award winning director, a star-studded cast, and a storyline that is sure to excite and horrify at the same time.
American Gangster. A play off the BET series documentary that airs every week on Wednesday, it is almost an arrogant announcement to the world of underworld thugs that, yeah there may have been gangsters, but this is THE gangster, so make way.
And make way, director Ridley Scott did. He attempted to capture the essence of one of the most notorious gangsters of the 70's. Few would argue that he didn't do that. You be the judge.
The movie takes place mostly in Harlem, where the movie's opening scene shows a grotesque harbinger of things to come. Denzel captured Frank Lucas' sadism off the bat, completing Bumpy Johnson's (played by Clarence Williams III) dirty work. The credits roll in, with the caption American Gangster in bold red. It was clear that Scott wanted to establish a dark, iniquitous tone for the movie, showing Frank Lucas as a dry, focused, pupil, imbibing the wisdom of Bumpy Johnson. Johnson would have a heart attack, but not before sharing a nugget with Frank that would shape the rest of his life:
Go straight to the source, cut out the middleman.
So Franks heeded, and headed to Thailand to get the reduced-priced but high quality heroine (100% to be exact). Going through the jungle to meet the "source" of the junkies in the Vietnam war, Frank established a connection that would be lucrative and yet destructive at the same time. Instantly, Frank branded Blue Magic and became the man on the streets. Assuming mega-profits (relative to the other dealers of that time) because he cut out the middle man - he was the middle man - he rose to the top in the streets. He was even above the Italian mafia.
Naturally as a black man, this was sure to arouse jealousy among the fairer race, for no black man - as it was euphemistically put in the movies- "has ever accomplished what the Italian mafia has" in hundreds of years. The premise of the movie was cliche enough: the rise and fall of a drug kingpin. But this movie also added an interesting twist: The insertion of a cop's life that adds spice to the movie.
In essence, the movie featured the dichotomy of Richie Roberts (ably played by Russell Crowe) AND Frank Lucas life (quadrotomy?). Roberts was the super-honest cop who once turned in a million dollars of unmarked cash, but was a womanizer who was in the middle of a combusted divorce. Lucas, as I pointed out earlier, was the ruthless, reflective, enterpriser who harbored a contorted mix of morals and leadership that would make Zig Ziglar proud. He took his mother to church every Sunday, he was honest, exhibited integrity, and loyalty. He made money for his family, with whom he shared his business empire with. He was also a man with a quick temper, exemplified with his quick strike lash-outs with his incompetent family members.
Many business parallels can be salvaged from this movie; the kind of parallels that makes you wonder if Frank Lucas would have been as successful a CEO of a software company as he was as a heroine distributor. He gave a lot of business lesson platitudes and aphorisms (the use of brand naming, trademark infringement, the importance of wholesale purchasing versus retail purchasing for a business owner) that any aspiring entrepreneur can use. At its underlying core, you realize the core genius of a man who took what life gave him and made lemonade. He saw a life with no options - or shall I say limited options - and made the most out of it. Problem was, it was illegal. Perhaps his race increased the fervor with which the law - and opposing underworld members - brought about his incarceration. Or perhaps it was because of his belief in family loyalty (which greatly precipitated his demise). Or his nature to please his woman (which seems to be a common trait in the downfall of man).
But I am afraid that the masses who see this film will take the wrong message from it. They will see a guy, uninhibited, full of temerity, and smart who took what was his. They will see a guy worth emulating, because they will only take away the mistakes he made, and say to themselves "I won't make that same mistake." They will see the money. The respect. The front row seats. The beautiful wife. The mother who he moved into his home. All of which caters to the self-interest and vanity that plagues society.
They will forget how he brought a great many of his family down. How he led to the destruction of one of the richest black communities in the U.S. How black people are still suffering to this day as a result of the heroine, later turned crack trade. How he snitched his way to 7 years instead of 70 (albeit it was cops who he snitched on, snitching is a code irrespective of who is the snitched). How he grieved his mother and lost his wife.
Masses will miss the major point: That these type of people set goodwill and the balance of society back exponentially. And that disturbs me. Hopefully I will be proven wrong, but a conversation I heard among a group of four while exiting the movie theater did nothing to allay my fears:
Guy #1: Did you see how gangster he was (he exclaims this with the excitement of a six-year old at Christmas)?!?
Girl: I know! Denzel was so sexy! He is the man with those roles.
Guy #2: That is how you do it...the way he went about his business, how he popped that guy in full view if everybody...BOOM!
Guy # 1: What a great movie!
Well, he wasn't lying about that last sentence; it was a great movie. A few things were missing though. The lack of subtlety of the film: in baseball terms, it was more Nolan Ryan than Bob Gibson (and let's face it, Gibson was by far the better pitcher), the lack of a back story that led Frank into a life filled with murder, mayhem, and money. The egalitarian focus on Crowe and Denzel: it appeared that the director wanted to make them equal, but it was clearly Denzel's movie. I leave the minutiae to the Eberts and Alan Smiths of the world.
But Denzel and Russell, the scene in which they finally met face-to-face, was chilling. It was a bit awkward, yet scintillating. A climax of the movie indeed. But again, I'll leave it to the film critics to analyze the denouement and buildups.
I am more interested in the anthropological effect of the movie. A friend of mine told me early in October that this movie will have the same impact on black people that Scarface had on the Latino community. I disputed this, simply because this is a different era and we are more progressive now than we were then. But I didn't fully believe that.
Am I right? Only time will tell.
Oh yeah, I would be remiss to forget to include the rest of the stellar cast that was in this film: Chiwetel Ojiofor, Idris Elba, Cuba Gooding Jr., Ruby Dee, Rza, Common, T.I. (minus $3 million dollars...that's a bad joke), and Roger Guenveur Smith.
Now go see for yourself, for research is the first step in intelligible banter.