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American Gangster

Dir. Ridley Scott (Universal) - 4 stars

Let’s play a game.

“The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work, and family.” These are the words of which famous cinematic mobster: (1) Vito Corleone (2) Frank Costello or (3) Frank Lucas?

Wait, Frank Lucas who?

That seems to be the question of most members of the New York City Police Department in Ridley Scott’s new big-budget biopic, “American Gangster.” Starring audience and Academy darlings Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, the film follows the rise of Harlem gangster Frank Lucas (Washington), who became one of the most successful drug lords of the late ’60s early ’70s by cutting out the middlemen and buying heroin directly from Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.

Did I mention that Frank Lucas is black? Throughout the story, Lucas’s race plays a significant role in the NYPD’s unwillingness to recognize him as a true threat to the war on drugs and the Sicilian Mafia’s unwillingness to recognize him as a true competitor in the business of organized crime. Ever the clever opportunist, Lucas uses society’s disparaging notions of African-American intelligence and strength to operate below the radar and ultimately manipulate those parties who assumed him powerless. Director Scott (“Gladiator”) uses quick cuts to and from close-ups of Lucas’ eyes and his surroundings to emphasize the careful analysis of a black man trying to operate in a world where business, crime, and everyday life are synonymous.

At times, Lucas needs to exhibit his ruthlessness in order to gain respect. For this reason, “American Gangster” deviates from “The Godfather” by presenting sometimes painfully detailed violence. The opening scene of the movie, for all intents and purposes, shows Lucas and his mentor dousing a man with gasoline, lighting him on fire, and then shooting him in the head three times after they watch him writhe and scream.

Scenes such as these paint Lucas as far more hotheaded and ferocious than Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone; he rarely spares anyone (whether family or stranger) his physical wrath or his ultra-focused coldness. Even on his wedding night, he ignores his wife, burning an innocent gift from her that jeopardized his drug-lord identity.

Nevertheless, the spurts of violence and the explicit examples of drug use are muted by Scott’s use of bright, saturated colors in costuming and setting, which fit perfectly into the 70’s era funk-feel of Harlem. Additionally, Scott inserts comedic interludes to break up the melodrama, whether laughing and talking over a family meal or cracking jokes at a club. Even the aura of the crime world itself is lightened by the presence of Cuba Gooding Jr., who plays a comically overdressed small-time gangster with a loud, Flavor Flav-esque personality. Despite serving a necessary mood-lifting purpose, Gooding Jr.’s acting is the main sore point in the film, especially when compared to the chops of Washington and Crowe. Even “homebound-after-arrest” pop-rapper T.I. brings a greater depth of realism to his role as Lucas’ wide-eyed nephew.

Perhaps the vital string that ties “American Gangster” together is its soundtrack. Composer and music editor Mark Streitenfeld, who worked with Scott on “Gladiator” and “Black Hawk Down,” provides a powerful yet non-distracting score, but music supervisor Kathy Nelson does an impressive job of incorporating old school-soul ballads from the likes of platinum artist Anthony Hamilton with classic jams that reflect the decade. The music helps lift the movie from a simple “based-on-a-true-story” flick to a film wrought with a sense of empowerment and empathy despite the harsh implications of the plot.

“American Gangster” is, in its own way, this year’s “The Departed”; no doubt, there will be an Oscar nod for Crowe, Washington, and the film. The film creatively examines social issues revolving around race, honesty, and integrity while presenting the analytical nuances of these concepts. Plus, Jay-Z made an entire album in honor of the film, so I guess that’s cool too.

—Staff writer Erin A. May can be reached at emay@fas.harvard.edu.
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