Film

‘Gangster’ Is a Bit Too Old School

AMERICAN GANGSTER (dir. Ridley Scott)

Is there really that much more to be said about mobsters -- at least, cinematically? Hasn’t Francis Ford Copolla, Martin Scorsese and many in their sphere of obvious influence exhausted the possibilities of crime as an indictment/indication of the American Dream? From old country legends to modern Sin City myths, every race, ethnicity, location, and racket has been examined, deconstructed, and over-romanticized. And with The Sopranos still resonating in its fanbase’s mind, do we really need to revisit a landscape bathed in blood, driven by unclear codes of conduct, and vehement in thinking that violence is both glamorous and ungodly?

Apparently, screenwriter Steve Zaillian and director Ridley Scott seem to think so. They’ve taken the story of Harlem drug king Frank Lucas and turned it -- and him -- into a symbol of pre-‘70s smarts and racially irrelevant success. Then they parallel it with the story of an honest cop vowing to clean up the streets, along with his fellow crooked officers. Add Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe as the leads and the results speak or themselves. Or at least they try too. Overlong by at least 20 minutes, and missing many of the detail that turns such cops and robbers sagas into glorified Greek tragedies, American Gangster is polished filmmaking that frequently misses the inherent spectacle of the story it’s telling. Then it discovers there was very little scope to begin with.

When we first meet Lucas, he’s a henchman for longtime NYC kingpin Bumpy Johnson. After the man’s untimely death, the apprentice vows to create the same kind of classy, corporate like Drug Empire as his mentor. Realizing that buying directly from the source can cut down on the middle man, and increase the product’s (heroin) purity, he travels to Bangkok to meet up with an old military friend. They strike a deal with the locals, and soon, kilos of high grade H are making their way in the metal coffins of fallen Vietnam vets.

It’s not long before Lucas owns the streets, and he brings his entire family up from North Carolina to help him out. He even has the mafia buying their Blue Magic from his organization. When his cop buddy gets involved in graft and dope, honest officer Ritchie Roberts decides to bring down whoever is pushing. Of course he must cut through massive corruption among his fellow policeman, a lack of real leads, and Lucas’ expertly planned process. All it takes is a tip, and a trail to follow, and both sides of the law are destined to butt heads.

American Gangster is an oddly one note movie made more or less grandiose by Ridley Scott’s insatiable desire to overload the screen with superfluous details. There is not much more to Frank Lucas than honor among heroin dealers, and Ritchie Roberts is the only incorruptible lawman in all of New York proper. Together, they are the karmic balance of good vs. evil set within a city drowning in dope. Granted, we learn that Lucas is as cold blooded as they come, killing rivals in broad daylight. And Roberts is a womanizing heel, incapable of holding onto the principles in his private life that he cherishes in public. So we get some sort of dimension in how the characters are portrayed. But unlike films such as Goodfellas, Scarface, and the Godfather saga, American Gangster functions on a level outside of crime. Sure, the smack trade is part and parcel of the narrative, but it’s the men, not the setup of the syndicate, that really matters.

Indeed, this is perhaps the most overblown character study ever committed to film. At nearly 150 mins, Scott can’t stop expanding the personality playing field. Lucas has six other siblings and each one gets his moment in the emblematic sun. Both his mother and his Puerto Rican beauty queen wife have their own sequences of self-righteous indignation. On Roberts side, we find his unhappy, soon to be ex, a woman who responds to all interpersonal disappointment by dropping names of the mobsters her partner is pals with. Then there’s the soon to be junkie colleague who looks like Serpico crossed with Superfly. You just know he’s going to get a dramatic send-off. Scott also shows us the street level recruits who make up Roberts newly formed federal task force. By the time he’s done, we expect American Gangster to give us the backstory on every waitress, bouncer, and soul singer we see.

The morals are also misplaced here. Lucas is a scum sucking dope peddler, a man systematically addicting and killing his own people in the name of free enterprise and sticking it to the “white man”. Frankly, racist Italians giving blacks a means of self destruction makes a whole lot more sense -- at least from an unenlightened, ‘60s/’70s standpoint -- than a smooth talking, educated brother. Lucas’ motives are never explained save for a single speech where he indicates a desire to do for himself and his family. Great, and apparently, it doesn’t matter that all of Harlem is strung out as a result. Even worse, when we get to the last act confrontation with authorities, Lucas stands his ground -- that is, until a massive jail sentence is dangled in front of his face. Then he instantaneously turns snitch -- but since he’s ratting on dirty cops and underworld crime lords, who cares... right?

As a result, American Gangster goes more than a bit cockeyed once in a while. When Roberts turns over nearly a million dollars in unmarked bills (standard operating procedure at the time would have been to pocket the loot), he becomes the pariah of the department. Yet we’re supposed to infer why his fellow officers hate him -- something about rubbing their nose in their petty, obvious bribery. Similarly, Lucas’ violent outbursts are meant to marginalize his suave and debonair demeanor. But you’re dealing with Denzel Washington here, an emblematic figure who can make baby rape seem cool. In fact, it’s so hard to paint either character in a corruptible light that when Scott assembles a Thanksgiving Day montage highlighting the horrors of Harlem, it plays like disconnected blight dragging us away from the real picture at hand. For as gaudy and gratuitous as they were, films like Scarface and The Godfather never forgot they were dealing with killers. This may be the first mob movie that turns its villains into viable vehicles for underhanded respect.

In fact, all of American Gangster plays like a perfectly formed post-millennial pastiche of the Playstation Generation’s greatest imagined gangland hits. It readily recalls every Scorsese-like step into the realm of such dark, strictly business realities and underlying urban decay. While set in the late ‘60s/early ‘70s, the look is less dated and more fashion model post-modern. There is a swagger that the story fails to fully earn, and a matter of fact quality that underlines the story’s inherent superficiality.

Intriguingly enough, there is a documentary out currently entitled Mr. Untouchable. It deals with the exact same facts, except this time, we learn the lessons of Harlem’s decline into heroin from fellow dealer Nicky Barnes. Said film features details American Gangster skims over (why the drug cutting gals are naked, the Italians ultimate aims) while making a case for Barnes as everything Lucas is portrayed as. It’s a compelling argument, one that Ridley Scott and his A-list almost-epic fails to fully embrace. American Gangster is a very good movie. Somehow, one senses, it could have been grand.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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