Unoriginal Gangsterby Mark Asch
American Gangster, Dir. Ridley Scott, Now Playing
“Pandering” hardly seems an adequate word for American Gangster, a biopic of 1960s Harlem heroin king Frank Lucas directed by middle-aged white millionaire Ridley Scott, written by middle-aged white millionaire Steve Zaillian, produced by middle-aged white millionaire Brian Grazer, and designed to soft-sell an African American audience on the proposition of the druglord as symbol of heroic honesty and self-determination in a racist society.
I’m not offering a variation on the aesthetically indifferent and politically inadequate Sending the Wrong Message argument here. Nor is this a beef about cred—even the hardest rappers aspire to the Burberry and Bentleys befitting a John D. Rockefeller, or a Sean C. Roc-a-fella. No, the issue of American Gangster’s authenticity screams out for a Potter Stewart Special, so here goes: we’re talking about a movie that’s straight outta the General Electric subsidiary Universal Pictures.
The film drips with nostalgia for pre-gentrification New York (Harlem in particular), with its wide-lapelled suits and presumably affordable rows of brownstones. But this unoriginal Gangster’s principle frame of reference isn’t the history of New York, but the history of New York on film.
“This is the French Connection dope,” says one supplier, referencing an infamous bust best known to most audiences for inspiring an epochal moment in the cinema of urban grit. The cops, he goes on, have been cutting the dope and selling it back to the streets ever since, protected by an intraforce omerta redolent of Sidney Lumet’s dirty cop movies. “Cops kill cops who talk,” says a plain-clothes detective with hair like Al Pacino as Frank Serpico. The rottenest apple is one Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), of the Special Investigations Unit—a character based on Lucas’ real-life SIU bête noire Bob Leuci, far less fictionalized as Danny Ciello in Lumet’s Prince of the City. Director Scott makes sure we know that Lucas (Denzel Washington) has a plan to stick it to the Man, scoring a montage of Lucas’ cartel getting its hustle on to Bobby Womack’s blaxploitation title song “Across 110th St.”
Scott invokes the counterculture charge of Hollywood in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, when the death of the studio system created a power vacuum soon filled by a movie-savvy generation eager to turn conventional genres on their heads. Though blaxploitation eventually lived up to the co-opting embedded in its name, it also saw studios chasing after outside properties—United Artists distributed Cotton Comes to Harlem, an independently produced Chester Himes adaptation written and directed by Ossie Davis—and new voices—activist and polymath Gordon Parks helming MGM’s Shaft, for instance. Blaxploitation also succeeded in upending the urban thriller’s assumptions about authority. But it’s worth remembering (as American Gangster seems not to) that its anti-authoritarian heroes weren’t just pushermen (Superfly) and pimps (The Mack), but cops (Shaft) and nurses (Coffy).
As ever, for an audience jonesing to have its alienation from mainstream culture validated, there’s no hero like an antihero. This perhaps explains the hold New Hollywood gangster movies like Scarface and Goodfellas have over hip-hop: the flamboyance with which a Tony Montana flaunts his outsider status feeds the self-mythologizing of hip-hop’s own outsider narrative—outside of American history, outside of the mainstream society, outside of the law.
It’s not that American Gangster isn’t allowed to play at that game. It’s that American Gangster so clearly knows it’s playing that game. On his blog “Status Ain’t Hood,” the Village Voice music critic Tom Breihan, who covers predominantly hip-hop, wrote: “I got to see the movie when Jay[-Z]’s publicist emailed me and told me to go to a press screening, putting me on the list. And I caught a quick glimpse of the guest-list when I was on my way in last night, and I saw more than a few DJs on there, so the movie is already being marketed as… a rap movie…” Peppering the film’s cast are Common, T.I., the RZA; the trailer is scored to Jay-Z’s aspirant “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love).” Jay-Z’s involvement in the run-up to the film’s release was, in fact, comprehensive: he even announced plans to record and release an album called American Gangster following the film’s opening weekend. (Reports, in mid-September, indicated that he was “inspired by a recent screening”; this would have made him among the first people not directly involved with the film to see it.)
The Jay-Z-scored trailer opens with Lucas declaring, “The man I worked for had one of the biggest companies in New York City. He didn’t own his own company. White man owned it, so they owned him. Nobody owns me, though,” and ends with his title-confirming “This is my home. My country.” Indeed, the American Gangster is an American Hero, a classic underdog triumphing over a society out to suppress him. It just so happens that the market-beating potency of his blend of smack is a particular point of entrepreneurial integrity. With his self-made wealth, he buys his mother a house; the police raid it, and slap his wife across the face. (It’s indicative of the film’s views on gender that the raid occurs while Lucas is away from the homestead, and entails considerable damage to many of his other, um, possessions.)
With its almost contractually obligated cutaways of naked girls mixing the heroin and squib packets, American Gangster cashes in on the vicarious thrills of Lucas’ amorality, but it crosses its fingers while doing so. Sure, he may have made his fortune smuggling opium into the country in the coffins of soldiers killed in Vietnam, but he’s still the film’s moral center. Lucas achieves this status because Scott surrounds him with grotesques. There’s the extortionist Trupo, standing for the corruption of law and order; there’s the snobby old money of the Italian mob; and also, inevitably, the official who scoffs, incredulously, that there’s no way a “nigger” could possibly run an organization as sophisticated as Lucas’.
For a cop to bring Lucas down, he, too, must live honestly outside the law. “My man,” grins Lucas at Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), as the movie explicitly avows that an honest cop on a crooked force lives as an outcast on the level of an African American in the international drug trade. In an outsider triumph, testimony from Lucas and this Honorary Black Man bring down the pigs in the SIU. (In fact, evidence provided by Leuci/Ciello/Trupo was crucial to mid-70s revelations of NYPD malfeasance; for his part, Lucas remains mum on the subject of his assumed cooperation.)
The film ends in 1991, with Lucas released from prison into a strange new world: Public Enemy blasting from a low-rider and the specter of crack heavy in the air. Is he now, American Gangster asks, adrift in a world of his own making? Just a minute—haven’t Scott and company just spent two and a half hours exploiting the very mythologies they’re now blaming for urban ruin? Who are they to claim that they didn’t really mean it?
Mark Asch is the Film Editor of The L Magazine. He lives in Bed-Stuy.