But then again I got a story
That’s harder than the hardcore
Cost of the holocaust.
I’m talkin’ ’bout the one still goin’ on.
— Public Enemy, “Can’t Truss It”
It’s the mid-’70s, and heroin kingpin Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) has brought his brothers up from North Carolina to share his success. Seated in a sunny Harlem diner, he notices a rival standing on a nearby corner and rushes out the door to confront the troublemaker. As his brothers look on, astonished, he shoots his foe blam in the head, then returns calmly to the table, picking up his conversation where he left off. Loyalty is important, he says. His brothers agree.
The scene, both lurid and funny, showcases the problem at the center of American Gangster. As much as it loves Frank’s intelligence and charisma, it must also condemn his brutal criminality. The movie’s two-part solution is based on a true story, but woefully conventional.
First, it makes his opponents worse villains than he is: the (black) crooks and dealers he challenges and defeats are bullies and thugs, whereas Frank develops a certain smooth exterior, copied from his mentor, Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). But, much as Frank admires the old man’s finesse and sense of honor, the film opens with a scene indicating the passing of an era. The men stroll through a department store where a background TV shows the Vietnam war. Just as Bumpy laments, “This is the problem, what’s happening in America: it’s gotten too big, you can’t find your way,” he collapses of a mortal illness. Bumpy’s articulation of “the problem” — corruption run amok, honor lost — only sets up Frank’s embodiment of it. When he vows to collect on debts owed to Bumpy, Frank sets in motion a dire spiral, amassing an empire by preying on addicts.
Second, American Gangster sets Frank on a parallel track with a very familiar hero, upright-to-a-fault detective (and eventual lawyer) Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). Both their self-images are grand: while his revamping of Bumpy’s business makes Frank the king of NYC’s drug underworld, Richie makes a name for himself as a “fucking boy scout,” a cop who decides to turn in almost a million dollars worth of drug money rather than keeping it for himself (and his partner). This sets Frank outside the generally corrupt cop culture of the day, inciting the distrust of his fellows (including loutish Detective Trupo [Josh Brolin]) and eventually leads to his own special unit, a crew of scrupulous believers (including RZA and Ruben Santiago-Hudson) assigned to track the man behind Harlem’s increased heroin traffic.
If the cop-and-gangster opposition isn’t enough, the film also differentiates between the men’s essential styles. While Frank builds a lavish mansion for his mama (Ruby Dee) and surrounds himself with devoted family members (including Lymari Nadal as Eva, his high-maintenance beauty queen wife, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common as two of his brothers, and T.I. as a much-admiring nephew), Richie is mostly alone, rejected by his wife (Carla Gugino) and dedicated to his mission no matter where it leads. That’s not to say he doesn’t cheat when he feels the need: when his former partner, now an addict himself, murders a dealer in a very black neighborhood, Richie schemes a very creative way out (they wheel the corpse out with eyes open so as to mollify the angry neighbors). Feeling both guilty for and disgusted by the partner’s downturn, he makes what he considers a moral choice, understanding the simultaneous power and threat of the black “community,” now coming into its own with televised civil rights protests and the rise of Muhammad Ali and the Black Panthers.
On one level, Frank loses sight of this community’s radical possibility. He chooses instead to outmaneuver the white guys. “Bumpy was rich,” he explains, “but he wasn’t white man rich. I own my own company.” Ambitious and politically astute, Frank frames his success as representing black progress. His elaborate machinations include traveling to war-torn Southeast Asia to secure his own middle-manless product (at first he pays soldiers to carry it past Customs, later, more ingeniously, he ships it in the coffins of U.S. troops). One of the inspirations for New Jack City‘s Nino Brown, Frank employs bare-breasted ladies to package the heroin and cynically hands out turkeys for the holidays, ensuring that he can claim Harlem as “his.”
Richie’s path is less sensational, more earnest. He and his team discover Frank’s business precisely because Richie is not so racist as his superiors, who don’t believe a black man could outscore the Italian mafia at their own game. And just like the white crooks before him. It’s Frank’s own hubris that brings him to Richie’s attention, when he wears a chinchilla coat to an Ali fight. Though Frank understands the costs of excess (“The loudest one on the room is the weakest one in the room,” he asserts), he succumbs in this instance to Eva’s gaudy taste.
When the cops pull him over on the way home that night, Frank realizes that he’s lapsed into exactly the rash display that he’s warned his brothers against. But even if he makes a big show at home of burning the coat (and essentially blaming Eva for his bad judgment), the film also suggests that Frank has his own problems regarding scale. Though he’s never so ostentatious as his pimped-out associate, Mr. Untouchable Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr.), he does stand in stark contrast to Richie.
On one level, their differences are coded as “moral” according to class: the criminal dines on a magnificent turkey dinner, the stalwart cop slaps together a tuna-and-potato-chips sandwich. But on another, their raced identities are much more important in assessing character. Where Frank flamboyantly exploits his hard-knocks black customers, Richie exhibits an admirable liberal bent. His multi-culti team marks his commendable sense of equality, as does his capacity to believe a black man can outscore the Italian mafia at their own game (pointedly, the racist cops can’t imagine it). The film thus manages an odd dynamic, whereby the white cop is less abusive of black folks than the much revered gangster.
When Frank turns state’s evidence, he appears to reject his former villainy and embrace Richie as a right “white man.” The fact that their collaboration sends Frank’s brothers and many others to prison but hardly slows the heroin business (and crack is just around the corner, after all) is only partly ironic (the fact that it’s a plot point achieved as Nixon announces on a background TV the deal in Paris for “peace with honor” is no small contextual detail). As corny as Frank and Richie’s relationship may appear in the end (all montagey charts and late nights working), it returns again to the movie’s central problem: it loves Frank and has to hate him.