American Gangster: Motives, Outsiders, & Branding

In addition to overseeing a wonderfully solid, if not classic, crime film in American Gangster, director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Thelma & Louise) and writer Steven Zaillian (All the King’s Men, Gangs of New York) have given us quite a conversation piece. While gangster flick aficionados generally view American Gangster as a meritorious effort, from the topnotch cast to the painstaking attention to detail, almost everyone believes it misses the mark of true greatness. Something is missing, but what?

With the help of American Gangster‘s extended movie version and various bonus bits, I’ve formulated a theory about American Gangster‘s character motivations and themes. In my view, the movie’s main problem is that, in resembling the typical gangster film, its atypical aspects are too easily overshadowed by the conventions of the genre.

I. American Gangster vs. American Cop

The argument that the film’s storyline is too formulaic and familiar is a valid one. In a nutshell, American Gangster paints a late ’60s-early ’70s portrait of Harlem crime figure Frank Lucas, coolly and resolutely portrayed by Denzel Washington. Frank was the bodyguard for legendary crime boss Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III). At Bumpy’s death, with rival crooks and crooked cops all vying for a piece of the streets, Frank vows to collect Bumpy’s debts (“They think I’m gonna forget to collect, but I’ma get that money”) and, later, masterminds a plan to import heroin in its purest form directly from Southeast Asia. With the Vietnam conflict and its pathos as a backdrop, Frank smuggles his dope into the United States via the U.S. Army, sometimes using military caskets as containers.

Seen any movies like this? Certainly. Pick a crime movie, any crime movie: The Untouchables (a rather rotund Robert De Niro doing one of my favorite Al Capone impressions); Heat (that De Niro guy again as one of the smoothest and shrewdest criminals you’ll ever see); The Godfather (a multigenerational crime saga that needs no introduction); Scarface (“Say hello to my lil’ friend!”). What about the idea of getting the dope directly from the source? Johnny Depp did the “cutting-out-the middleman” bit as George Jung in Ted Demme’s Blow, hooking up with the notorious and ruthless Pablo Escobar to dominate the cocaine market in the United States.

That Lucas is a “black” or “African-American” gangster isn’t unique either. Wesley Snipes worked his magic as gritty drug dealer Roemello Skuggs in Sugar Hill and, most famously, as Nino Brown in New Jack City. In Hoodlum, Lawrence Fishburne played Bumpy Johnson in the midst of his struggle against Tim Roth’s very manic and devilish Dutch Schultz. Besides that, there’s a strong argument to be made that Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas isn’t much of a stretch from, say, the Denzel Washington we saw in Training Day, Man on Fire, or the first half of Spike Lee’s Malcolm X. Admittedly, Washington is fantastic as always, but he’s nevertheless situated well within his comfort zone.

Russell Crowe offers a memorable performance as Richie Roberts, a scrappy New Jersey cop who endeavors to dismantle Frank’s heroin empire. The cop side of the movie is as familiar as its gangster tale, with Crowe’s flawed Richie Roberts recalling Al Pacino as Lieutenant Vincent Hanna in Heat as well as Al Pacino’s dirty cop hunter in Serpico. Both characters, Richie and Vincent, chase shrewd, calculating criminals. Both are absorbed by their jobs. Both should probably rethink whether the institution of marriage is really for them.

In many ways, Crowe’s portrayal operates a foil to Washington’s kingpin persona. Where Frank Lucas smolders beneath a veneer of sophistication and icy resolve, Richie Roberts is an everyman, a regular Joe. Where Frank Lucas lives in splendor, Richie Roberts lives in relative squalor, eating tuna, pickle, and potato chip sandwiches (I didn’t know there was such a thing!). Frank visits the nightclubs he owns, dines in fancy restaurants, and hands out Thanksgiving turkeys like Nino Brown in New Jack City. Meanwhile, Richie has been studying for the bar exam. While Frank marries a Puerto Rican beauty queen (“Eva”), Richie’s marriage is falling apart, thanks in no small part to his chronic philandering and absentee fathering. Initially, I was unimpressed with Crowe’s interpretation of Richie Roberts, but it actually yields dividends with repeat viewings. You have to pay attention to his subtle mannerisms, which stand in sharp contrast to Washington’s rigid and austere posture.

Moreover, Russell Crowe’s gift is not his ability to become his characters. I don’t buy his New Jersey accent in American Gangster anymore than I bought him as Gladiator‘s Roman general “who became a slave…who became a gladiator…who defied an empire”. But, boy, oh boy, is he able to make his characters conform to his vision! Denzel Washington’s work is so strong, I tend to call all of his characters “Denzel” (“Remember that scene when Denzel wore the chinchilla coat? That was crazy!”). On the other hand, I rarely think Russell Crowe looks or sounds like his characters, but somehow he makes his characters conform to his will. I always end up referring to him as one of his roles (“Hey, the Gladiator’s going to be on The Good Morning Show! Make sure you record it.”). One of Crowe’s gifts is his uncanny ability to understand the psychology of a character, demonstrated by his discussion of Richie Roberts in the “Fallen Empire: Making American Gangster” bonus feature. This gift serves him well in American Gangster.

II. American Dream vs. American Outsider

Framing the film as a gangster rehash misses the point. Nor is it, as many have suggested, a mere game of cat-and-mouse between “honest cop” and “ruthless villain”. Those summaries are understandable, though, since the film tends to look and sound and feel like a typical gangster flick, starting with the first scene in which Frank douses a hapless man with gasoline, sets him ablaze, and repeatedly shoots the burning victim. It doesn’t get much more gangster than that. American Gangster‘s problem stems from its execution: its gangster lean obscures its more sophisticated character motivations and themes.

It may not seem like it at first, but the main characters actually do have motivations. The key rests in understanding that Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts, as they are drawn onscreen, represent two possible responses to the experience of being an “outsider”. Both men have a need to reconcile their status as “outsiders” with the promise of the American Dream. In this context, the film is less an indictment of American society during this time period and more akin to a case study of inclusion into that society, for better or worse.

That these men share the outsider experience is expressed most succinctly in the scene after Richie orders a full search of an airplane carrying the caskets of slain military personnel. When he demands that the caskets be searched, Richie faces outrage and outright refusal. The U.S. Attorney (Roger Bart) calls Richie into a private room to discuss the matter, demanding to know the reason for Richie’s invasive search. Richie lays it all out, telling him that Frank Lucas used the U.S. Army’s plane to smuggle drugs, that Frank Lucas is “above the Mafia in the dope business”, and that he’s a black man to boot. This not only elicits scorn from the U.S. Attorney (“You’re this close to the end of your career in law enforcement and you’re making f*cking jokes?”), but also his venom, “No f*cking n*gger has ever accomplished what the Mafia hasn’t in a hundred years!” He also goes after Richie personally, calling him a “k*ke”. Note also that Richie Roberts, in the alternate ending, wears a silver Star of David pendant.

The agent’s vicious reply marks the proverbial line in the sand. Frank and Richie are not “insiders”. Richie’s response to this is a decidedly underdog approach. He is a David facing a systemic Goliath that appears to him like interlocking strands in a web of graft and self-interest. “You know, I don’t think they want this to stop,” he laments. “I think it employs too many people. Judges, lawyers, cops, politicians, prison guards, probation officers. They stop bringing dope into this country [and] about 100,000 people are going to be out of a job.” Richie’s use of the word “they”, which implies his membership in an “us” group, is telling.

Unlike Frank Lucas, who doggedly pursues a code of order and ironfisted control, Richie exists in chaos, at times coming close to reveling in it. His identity, relative to the existing power structure, is malleable, represented by his ascent from (1) Jersey cop, to (2) coordinating a team in tandem with Washington’s “special narcotics bureau”, to (3) prosecutor and, much later, to (4) defense attorney (and we are told that Frank Lucas was his first client). We even see him as a litigant in his marital and custody case opposite his wife. According to Russell Crowe, Richie Roberts didn’t believe in merely accepting the status quo, wherein “people in power control everything and say ‘It is because it is’.” He instead worked as “an absolute member of the establishment” in his aforementioned roles in law enforcement and the legal system.

Richie’s outcast status is a better explanation for his behavior than the view that he is merely a thoroughly “honest cop” trying to cleanse the dirtiest from among his brethren in blue. The “honest cop” view is persuasive, though, given the fact that Richie, with Frank’s help after getting busted, puts the screws to the crooked cops as well as the street thugs. It’s important to note, however, that he’s a prosecutor while doing this, not a cop, and so his ambition could be due, at least partially, to his interest in advancing his legal career as much as ridding the world’s crevices of evildoers. And then there’s his most astonishing deed: turning in a million dollars he and his partner found in the trunk of a car.

The movie emphasizes the fact that cops on the take would have kept the money, and his act of turning it in renders him untrustworthy in the eyes of the corrupt. His partner Javier (John Ortiz) declares, “Cops kill cops they can’t trust.” At the end of the movie, Richie, as Prosecutor, has finally brought Frank to trial for an array of crimes. In the inevitable showdown meeting with Richie, Frank can’t wait to dive into the subject. “I was talking to my lawyers. They said something to me, I can’t believe it. Did you really find a million dollars in the trunk of a car and then turn it in? Did you do that?”

Richie admits he did, saying it was the right thing to do, although, when questioned by his special investigations team, he admitted that he was as unsettled by it as everyone else. “I should be down in South Florida with a 68-foot cruiser doing fishing charters.” When Frank asks him, “Would you do it again?”, I’m not sure the movie version of Richie would answer with a definitive yes. Also, Richie’s wife Laurie adds a different perspective to the theory that American Gangster documents a dichotomy between scrupulous Richie and unscrupulous Frank. She accuses him of turning in the money “to buy being dishonest about everything else. ”

Even if the Richie Roberts of our story had kept the money, he still wouldn’t have been “one of the guys”. He therefore combats his outsider status by, as Russell Crowe described it, recognizing that “someone has to be the agitator” and, further, being the person who’s willing to “throw the stones.” Maybe it’s easier to stir the proverbial melting pot by standing on the outside of it. As a prosecutor, he uses information from Frank Lucas to cast a net over all sorts of criminal activity, including acts by police officers. Frank Lucas is incredulous about Richie’s intent to convict members of law enforcement, “You want your own kind?” To this, Richie responds, soberly, “They’re not my kind…They ain’t my kind like the Italians are not yours.”

Like Frank Lucas, Richie wants his independence. He doesn’t want to be owned, bought, or beholden to outside forces. Not even the confines and responsibilities of family life can hold him, demonstrated by the scene in which he completely forgets about a scheduled visit from Child Social Services and ends up parading his latest paramour in front of the Child Services official.

The Frank Lucas response to being an outsider is clearly more vehement and pronounced. He fashions himself as a superman of sorts, with a touch of Nietzsche and maybe a dab of the Raskolnikov anti-hero in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment. In terms of the latter, Frank Lucas isolates himself from others like Raskolnikov and similarly understands the world as being populated by either extraordinary people or average people. At his favorite diner, Frank expresses this to his brothers, the new employees to his business: “See, you are what you are in this world. That’s either one of two things. Either you’re somebody, or you’re nobody.” Then he walks right down the crowded street and, before you can spell “Raskolnikov” or “Dostoevsky”, he points his pistol at his rival’s forehead (Idris Elba as “Tango”) and shoots him. He walks back to the diner, sits down again, and looks at his brothers, and says, “So, what was I sayin’?”

Director Ridley Scott recalls asking the real life Frank Lucas whether he ever felt intimidated during his trips to Saigon “in the middle of a world war”, where he would meet people who “could just as soon put a bullet in your head.” Apparently, the thought hadn’t crossed Frank Lucas’s mind. He responded with a simple, “Why?” In the fictional account, Frank exudes this same fearlessness (or, perhaps, lack of awareness), whether he’s braving the unknown in his overseas travels or facing threats at home from corrupt cops like Josh Brolin’s greasy Officer Trupo, a character that would be right at home in the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Frank has apparently rationalized his outsider status as proof of his superiority. However, his experience eventually becomes less like Superman and more like Icarus, the character in the Greek story who flew too close to the sun with his wax wings.

Frank Lucas faces Richie Roberts

Frank’s compensation for his outsider status through his superiority complex also explains his desire to keep a low profile, aside from shooting a man in broad daylight or beating his brother’s driver with a grand piano lid. “The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room,” he tells his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor), chastising him for dressing in a “clown suit with a big sign on it that says ‘Arrest Me'”, like the flamboyant Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.). Cuba Gooding’s Nicky Barnes is this movie’s version of the flashy showman “Joey Zasa” (Joe Mantegna) in the third installment of The Godfather. Like the rest of the talented cast, Barnes deserved more screen time, but with the film already running at a healthy two hours and 38 minutes, and almost three hours in the extended version, I’m hard pressed to determine where it would fit.

We might refer to Frank’s outlook as hubris, which it more than likely is, but it’s as potent as the heroin he unleashes on those mean streets. He fancies himself superior to his oppressors, crooked cops like the ones he saw, at the age of six, shoot his 12-year-old cousin in the face after tying him to a pole. “I didn’t give a f*ck about no police then,” he tells Richie. “And I don’t give a f*ck about no police now.” Earlier, he told his pal Charlie Williams (Joe Morton), “I’ve been paying off the police since I was ten years old….This is different, though…Special Investigative Unit. That’s their problem. They think they’re special.”

He sees rival mobsters as being beneath him, too. After a visit to Lucchese mob boss Dominic Cattano’s home (allowing a robust portrayal by Armand Assante), Frank’s wife Eva is skeptical of Frank’s new alliance, remarking, “They look at us like we’re ‘the help’.” Frank replies, “That’s okay,” and flicks his cigar in the opulent driveway as he enters his car. “They work for me now.”

At the historic Frazier-Ali heavyweight bout, Frank secures plum spectator seats and wears the much discussed chinchilla coat and hat ensemble that his wife gave him (he looks like Moscow’s Next Top Model to me). Dominic Cattano, sitting behind him, asks him if he’s going to keep obstructing the view with his humongous hat, to which Frank responds affirmatively, saying of the hat, “You paid for it.” He behaves every bit like the boss he believes himself to be, fashioning himself (pun intended) into his vision of the ideal kingpin. “Bumpy was rich,” he tells his brothers, “but he wasn’t white man rich. He wasn’t wealthy. He didn’t own his own company. He thought he did, but he didn’t, he just managed it. The white man owned it, so they owned him. Nobody owns me though.”

III. American Branding

We have to talk about that chinchilla coat, since the bonus features go to great lengths to explain its significance, not only as a turning point in the storyline but in terms of its actual design. The idea here is that Frank Lucas, in wearing the coat to the star-studded boxing match, attracted too much attention. We saw Frank chastising his brother’s wardrobe, now here he is falling into the same trap, and getting himself noticed by greedy Detective Trupo and earnest Richie Roberts in the process.

I, however, don’t think the chinchilla coat was quite so significant. He had better seats at the Frazier-Ali fight than the well-known Mafia head honchos, he was hobnobbing with celebrities, his was a face the cops hadn’t seen before, and he was black. He could have been wearing jeans and a tee shirt and he would have been noticed. Instead, a bigger factor in Frank’s undoing was his obsession with branding. He conceptualizes his product, the heroin, into a concept he neatly wraps within the name brand “Blue Magic”. He emphasizes this point with gusto during a meeting with Nicky Barnes:

Blue Magic. That’s a brand name. Like Pepsi, that’s a brand name. I stand behind it. I guarantee it. They know that, even if they don’t know me any more than they know the chairman of General Mills….[W]hen you chop my dope down to one, two, three, four, five percent and then you call it “Blue Magic”, that is trademark infringement.

Frank’s insistence on analogizing his drug business to trademark law and big business models (i.e., Pepsi and GM) is not without precedent. For example, in the United States Supreme Court case of Coca-Cola Company v. Koke Company of America, 254 U.S. 143 (1920), Coca-Cola sought to stop Koke Company from, first, calling itself “Koke Company”, and, second, from selling a beverage called “Dope”. Many years prior to the commencement of the case, Coca-Cola’s product contained small amounts of cocaine and the company frequently advertised the soda with images of coco leaves and cola nuts. Maybe a Coca-Cola representative had an American Gangster-like meeting with the heads of Koke: “Coca-Cola. That’s a brand name. Like Pinkerton. That’s a brand name. We stand behind it. We guarantee it…”

Koke Company’s defense was that once Coca-Cola’s drink formula eliminated the cocaine, Coca-Cola’s advertisements perpetrated a fraud on the public such that Coca-Cola would not be entitled to relief. Clever (that’s why lawyers make the big bucks), but the U.S. Supreme Court didn’t go for it. Nicky’s response to Frank’s infringement argument exhibited a similar bit of cleverness, “With all due respect, Frank, if I buy something, I own it. If I buy a car, and I wanna paint it, I can paint the motherf*cker.” But, as we know, brand names are powerful marketing tools that denote quality, consistency, style, and — most importantly for Frank’s empire — source.

When Richie discovered a “Blue Magic” packet at the morgue while identifying his police buddy’s dead body, he had his first clue that Frank’s game was afoot. Seeing his partner fall victim to drug abuse also added a personal incentive to Richie’s investigation. To borrow Frank’s analogy, people might not know the CEO of General Mills, but they can usually discover the CEO’s identity. And yet, while it might have been “safer” to sell his heroin in generic fashion, or even to allow Nicky Barnes to dilute the heroin, Frank’s Superman complex would not have been satisfied. That vital intersection between product, brand, and source is at once a marketing boon and a strategic misstep that far surpasses Frank’s decision to wear his fur coat.

As his operation expands, he plunges headfirst into the trap Bumpy Johnson complains about at the beginning of the movie. “This is what’s wrong with America. It’s gotten so big, you just can’t find your way. Where’s the pride of ownership? Where’s the personal service?” Frank’s progression turns Bumpy’s societal critique into a prophecy, as Frank loses the “personal service” touch in his quest to incorporate big business models and vertical integration principles into his criminal framework.

At the outset, we see him patrolling the streets incognito to survey his heroin sales. Later, his impersonal, multilevel management style accommodates his business expansion, but renders him unable to oversee each facet. For instance, when his brother’s driver (also his cousin) shoots a cop in the leg at one of Frank’s parties, Frank is livid but, aside from beating the crap out of the man, he delegates the fallout to his brother Huey. “From now on, don’t nobody talk to me directly!” he instructs his crew. “You got business with me, you talk to Huey! Huey, you talk to me! You got it?” Huey, behaving a little like Michael Corleone’s brother Fredo in Godfather II, doesn’t do what he’s told, and the troublesome cousin ends up working as an informant for Richie’s specialty squad.

Admittedly, Frank’s fixation with branding and management indicates rigidity of design and purpose. Yet, name brands also represent the power of choice, and we see this play out in fascinating ways. Throughout the film, we are told that Frank’s brothers would have followed in his footsteps regardless of his chosen profession. Had he been a doctor, they would have wanted to be doctors too. His nephew, played by rap artist Clifford “T.I.” Harris, chooses Frank’s business over a promising baseball career (which would have been very “American”, right?). It leads him to his death, as Frank almost certainly knew it would, yet when the young man informs him of his desire to emulate Frank, he hardly responds. Somehow, free market economic theory doesn’t translate comfortably into “free market life experience”.

Another example is Frank’s determination to keep his business afloat with more shipments of heroin from Southeast Asia, even when it’s becoming clear that U.S. military presence in the area will decrease, taking Frank’s shipping method along with it. Even Frank’s Southeast Asian supplier is skeptical of his chances, saying, “It’s not in my best interest to say this, Frank, but quitting while you’re ahead is not the same as quitting.” But, of course, he does not quit, nor will he consider taking his cash and moving away from his home to elude assassination attempts or capture. He chooses to keep going.

A third example rests in the background and landscape of the movie’s setting in heroin-riddled Harlem. My buddies have pointed out that Frank’s pride in his business is tragic and ironic, given the fact that his business involved something as destructive as the heroin trade. They tell me that the movie tends to elevate Frank, in an almost congratulatory manner, instead of condemning him for selling drugs “to his own people”.

That argument makes sense. At first, it almost sounds ethical. However, upon reflection, it also implies that all human beings don’t have a moral imperative to do minimal harm to each other. It suggests that we should find it understandable and somehow more acceptable if, say, the Italian mobsters sold drugs in Harlem, or if Frank confined his drug sales to groups other than “his people” (i.e. “black”). Let’s assume that Frank, as a black man, should engage in some sort of race-conscious drug dealing, a reversal of the scene in The Godfather where one of the mobsters suggested that the drug traffic should be confined to “the dark people, the colored” (“They’re animals anyway, so let them lose their souls” — ouch!). We would still have to acknowledge that at least some of Frank’s ill-gotten gains had a prayer of being recycled among “his people”, by Frank spending his money in the community, acquiring real estate in the community, and hiring folks from the community for his legitimate and illegitimate businesses.

I think, however, that the movie tries to explain its position through Frank’s conversation with Richie:

Do you really think that puttin’ me behind bars is really gonna change anything on them streets? Them dope fiends is gonna shoot it, they gonna steal for it, they’re gonna die for it. Puttin’ me in or out ain’t gonna change one thing.

Many times, there is an element of personal choice in drug use and, in the overall context I’ve outlined, the movie seems intent on championing personal choice, with the law of cause-and-effect as an addendum. Every action has a consequence, and the original theatrical ending leaves the viewer with the image of Frank being released from prison in 1991, wearing a meager suit and looking around with an invisible question hanging overhead: what will he do now? The alternate ending makes the question visible, with Richie awaiting Frank’s release and the two men talking and walking together through Frank’s former turf.

In the final analysis, crime dramas are robust vehicles for demonstrating the pitfalls of one’s choices, but the downside is that the conventions of the genre may obscure the choices and motivations at issue. American Gangster‘s quandary lies in finding a fresh way to tell its story within a familiar framework. This might have been an impossible hurdle to overcome, but the film is still noteworthy for the attempt.

RATING 7 / 10