If you want fast-paced, episodic plotting and the latest Hollywood version of “Super Fly,” go see “American Gangster.” But whether you’ve seen it or not, here is my opinion. And I’m 65 years old and come from these same streets by way of St. Louis, Chicago and New York, so not only do I have an opinion, but I have a qualified one at that!
What is the fascination with American gangsters? Or perhaps a more precise question would be: why the present fascination? There have always been gangster movies; many of us are old enough to remember James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and Humphrey Bogart who were the OGs (old gangsters) of the silver screen of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s.
Back then, when capitalism was very sanctimonious and hypocritical about law and order, and the “American way of life” consisted simply of “good guys” and “bad guys” — or the “cops” and the “robbers” — it was usually the good guys and the cops who won.
You will notice that today there is no clear line of demarcation between “good” and “bad,” and good doesn’t always win. And having lived through this era of bifurcated hypocrisy, I can really appreciate the fact of people pointing out, as Frank Lucas (played by Denzel Washington) does repeatedly in “American Gangster,” that the gangsterism on the streets is a mirror reflection of the gangsterism in the suites.
At any rate, most of us who are still involuntary denizens of the ghetto have learned, not just from reading, but living in the school of hard knocks, that greed is the universal creed of capitalism and that not money, but the lack of money, is the root of all evil.
How money is acquired becomes insignificant compared to the freedom and power it renders, and this applies to ghetto gangsters and Wall Street gangsters alike.
“American Gangster,” the movie, is sort of like the Horatio Alger story, ghetto-style. In fact, Lucas (the protagonist and antagonist wrapped into one) invokes the Protestant work ethic and paints a clear picture that in America, if you want to succeed, then you gotta do what you gotta do: murder, extortion, corrupting public officials (especially cops) and let’s not leave out, if you are an African American gangster, being a participant in the genocide perpetrated against your own people.
In real life, there are mobsters like Meyer Lansky who never went to jail. They make Lucas look like a midget throwing pebbles at Paul Bunyan. In Mario Puzo’s “Godfather,” the mobsters get away with their crimes and live like kings — but not Lucas: there is no equal opportunity for Black folk, period, not even in crime.
Bumpy Johnson, Frank Lucas and Nicky Barnes were Black. They were members of an oppressed part of the social order. They rose to their zeniths by exploiting and oppressing Black people in ways that would disgrace a nation of savages, to use the words of Frederick Douglass.
What could they expect to get out of the system except what they got: destroyed?
What’s revealed as the movie unfolds is that nobody is clean — they’re all dirty, right on up to the drug “warlords” in Washington, and that is truly the moral of this flick.
Check it out: government troops provide Lucas with the vehicle he needs for getting his heroin from the Southeast Asian poppy fields. And Italian mobsters, who are also being secretly supplied by Lucas, are Nicky Barnes’ suppliers.
Finally, I can’t resist mentioning that there was a much more powerful moral in the documentary movie “Mr. Untouchable.” In the end, Frank James sends the message to Nicky Barnes: Tell the young people not to follow in our footsteps, because we really didn’t do anything positive.
The real gangsters are still at the top, where they’ve always been. What a difference there is between fantasy and reality. Hollywood makes money off of the fantasy, and we’re stuck with the reality. It’s not going to change until we change it!
Directed by Ridley Scott
Universal Pictures, 2007
157 minutes, rated R