In attempting to elevate Frank Lucas into an African-American hero, Ridley Scott undermines decades of work done by genuine champions of racial equality.
It seems that Ridley Scott and I are at odds again. Although this ensuing tension with the esteemed director of Gladiator and Alien (and Legend!) might cause some awkwardness at all those celebrity parties I attend on a daily basis, it’s not my fault that the man consistently turns out pretty, empty films. It’s been a long time since Alien (or Legend!), and I don’t care how many Oscars were awarded during that dark year for the Academy when Gladiator was released. I still maintain that the sweeping, serious nature of Scott’s films trick the viewer into believing that they’re watching something important, when what they’re actually watching is trite fluff that has been heavily edited to produce hours of dramatic tension.
In the case of American Gangster, Scott has gone one step too far. Instead of trite fluff disguised as cinematic excellence, he’s actually attempted to present his story as one black man’s groundbreaking fight to achieve the highest success in a white-dominated industry. Frank Lucas, woodenly played by Denzel Washington (who, to his credit, wasn’t given much of a chance to really flesh out the character), is an entrepreneur in Harlem circa 1960. Refusing to allow his business to be ultimately owned by the white man, he learns how to cut out the middle man and supply his superior quality product directly to his happy customers, thereby making history by showing the world that yes, African-Americans are just as good as Italian-Americans and Irish-Americans and Caucasian Americans, if not better! Look how Frank Lucas gave the power of the neighborhood back to the people!
Well, unfortunately, Frank Lucas’s business is heroin, his happy customers are junkies, his product is a lot stronger than the competition’s, and he’s doing a bang-up job of sucking the lifeblood out of his own community. Hooray! Progress! Way to go, Frank! You are truly a role model for future generations. I thought for sure that the rest of the audience in my theater was equally aware of this inconsistency in message. That is, until they started clapping and shouting things like “That’s RIGHT!” every time Frank said something like “Those dirty white cops aren’t going to get any of MY money! I made it fair and square exploiting the little people and killing whomever I want!!” I’m surprised any self-respecting black actor would want to be involved in a film that, intentionally or not, gave the incredibly racist impression that the only industry in which a black person can rise above white oppression is the drug industry. What’s next? A film in which the hero is a woman who is enraged at all the men who sexually assault her fellow women, so she takes it upon herself to cut them out of the equation and become the neighborhood sexual predator? Isn’t that cannibalization?
Sure, Frank Lucas is eventually punished in the film, but it’s glossed over and we’re clearly supposed to pity his wife when she gets slapped by a cop — the same wife who happily uses drug money to buy $50,000 coats. Russell Crowe, who plays a super honest cop, eventually catches up to him, and the little epilogue snippets tell us that he spent some years in jail. However, we’re supposed to buy that Richie Roberts (Crowe) is awed and respectful of this, his greatest foe. I find it hard to believe that Roberts, who is built up throughout the first hundred hours of the film as utterly detesting both dirty cops and junkies, feels any sort of kinship or respect for a guy who represents violence, misery, and exploitation of his own people. Yet this is the feeling Ridley Scott is attempting to instill in us. Lucas and Roberts form a dubious partnership after his arrest and eradicate all of the shadiness in the police force in just a few minutes of screentime. The whole thing reeks of a quick fix, saving Lucas’s reputation in the eyes of the moviegoers once he has started to be held accountable for his many, many crimes. Interestingly enough, Crowe’s role in 3:10 to Yuma is on the other side of the good guy/bad guy dichotomy, only we are justified in respecting his villain, since he occasionally does an honorable thing or two. The internal forgiveness that American Gangster tries to inspire, by comparison, is both unwarranted and sort of sick.
And the strangest thing about American Gangster is that during a few scenes, it seems Scott is actually attempting to point out the division between Lucas and his consumer base. In a moving montage, the Lucas family’s lush Thanksgiving dinner is juxtaposed with scenes from the various Thanksgiving overdoses in junkie slums across Harlem, ostensibly the slums from which Lucas came. If anything, these scattered references to Lucas’s hypocrisy just make the overall message more garbled. Ridley needs to choose a side! He also needs to be more careful how he lends the filmmaking talent that he obviously possesses. I’m not convinced he’s Scorcese or anything, although I am entirely convinced that this film is his stab at the next Departed. The difference between that deserving Oscar winner and this unfortunate mistake is that underneath all the blood and drugs, American Gangster has no regard for its fellow man, especially the fellow man whose interest it claims to have in mind. In attempting to elevate Frank Lucas into an African-American hero, Ridley Scott undermines decades of work done by genuine champions of racial equality. So congratulations, Ridley. You have effectively encouraged America to further confuse “sticking it to The Man” with “becoming The very Man that you hate.”