I have to admit, when I first saw American Gangster I was not that impressed. I thought it was a good but not great crime drama with Denzel Washington as Harlem gang boss Frank Lucas and Russell Crow as New Jersey Detective Richie Roberts. After multiple viewings however I have come to like the film more and more.
Frank Lucas was a real person and the movie is loosely based upon his life. The movie covers both his and Robert’s lives parallel to each other. It is a police drama but with some twists. First, the cops weren’t all good, which was part of the struggle Roberts had investigating Lucas. Second, the movie is about Lucas’ chasing after the American Dream. Third, the story ends with the police but not in the way you would expect.
There are three major stories in the film. First is Lucas’ rise. He started off being the lieutenant to Harlem boss Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). He dies right at the start of the film opening the way for Lucas. Johnson worked under the Italian mafia that controlled New York. Lucas’ plan was to become independent, and the way he would do that was going straight to South East Asia and buy heroin directly from the producer and smuggle it into the United States using American soldiers who were fighting the Vietnam War. That undermined the mafia’s source which was the famous French Connection where heroin went from Southeast Asia to Turkey, then to France, and finally to America. This was an example of Lucas’ brilliance and boldness. He wasn’t willing to work for whites anymore and be subservient to the mob. He was going to be his own boss and have his own real kingdom in Harlem.
Roberts life is laid out at the same time. He was known to be a uncorrupt cop which brought the scorn of his peers. He was also struggling with his family and trying to get a law degree. Frank’s rise as a drug kingpin eventually drew his attention. He works the investigation starting from the bottom and working his way up trying to build a case that will bring down Lucas. This is a common trope in gangster films. The boss gets big, flaunts his wealth, which of course just marks his eventual fall.
This leads to the third story. That involves New York Detective Nick Trupo (Josh Brolin). His unit stole drugs taken in busts and sold it to gangs while also collecting protection money from the criminals to run their drugs through New York City. Trupo tries to shake down Frank while getting in the way of Roberts’ work.
All of these elements are what makes American Gangster not your typical good vs bad, rise and fall crime flick. Many of the cops were corrupt and on the take. Roberts and Lucas actually found a common cause at the end. It was also about a black man trying to find the American dream in a country where African Americans had very limited opportunities. Lucas’ path to fame and riches was through crime and he had the brains to make it big in his field. He brought his whole family up with him as well, of course that meant they joined his gang too. If people praise all the Italian mafia movies, they should praise this story as well because it showed blacks could be good criminals too.