American Gangster (Universal Pictures) is one of the most eagerly anticipated films of the year. Even prior to its release the film has already created such a buzz that it’s hastily cemented its place alongside other iconic films which celebrate the life and times of the gangster such as Tony Montana in Scarface, Don Corleone in The Godfather and of course Al Capone from The Untouchables. Jay-Z, inspired by the film, has already written an album, which steals the film’s title. So why the fuss?
Well the ensemble cast, which comprises heavyweights from the world of film and music -including Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Idris Elba, T.I., Common and RZA from the Wu-Tang Clan- certainly helps. But most importantly, the story of Frank Lucasthe Harlem drug-dealer who imported pure cocaine at discount prices from Vietnam, smuggling it into the US via the coffins of dead soldiers, is most definitely a fascinating one.Roughly two and a half hours in length, British Director Ridley Scott earns major brownie points by not succumbing to the obvious shoot ‘em up rollercoaster ride of say a Martin Scorsese type gangster thriller. Indeed there are a few gory moments, but Lucas’s menace is more psychological than anything. Needless to say, Denzel Washington puts in a mesmerizing performance as the complex, intelligent and psychopathic Frank Lucas, who like most gangsters baffled anyone who entered his lair.Much has been written about the true-life gangster who is still alive and initially sparked the interest of film bosses after an article appeared in New York Magazine (“Return of Superfly”, 2001) in which he boasts of blowing out the brains of a rival dealer to gain street credibility. Not surprisingly the film has already faced a spew of criticism from those who say that American Gangster is yet another film, which glorifies real life villains- think Billy The Kid and Bonnie, and surely the naysayers raise a valid point.
Gangster adulation is already so entrenched in American youth culture, particular Black culture, that you do struggle to justify its existence. Supporters of Lucas claim that the criticism is unjustified,because the drug kingpin is the embodiment of Black empowerment who stood for political autonomy through financial gain. But continually portraying a one-dimensional view of Black affluence (i.e. Black people can only gain access to wealth through crime and entertainment) surely sends out a damaging message to those who are impressionable.Despite this, American Gangster is extremely compelling. Shot beautifully, Ridley Scott conjures a realistic portrait of the spirited atmosphere of 1970’s Harlem interweaving the exuberance of the haves (entertainers, sport stars, drug dealers) with the dirty stairwells and rotting buildings of Lucas’ enslaved dope fiend followers. Russell Crowe puts in a very powerful performance as the troubled detective who fights to bring down Lucas’ empire. Stalwart actress Ruby Dee is also moving as Lucas’ feisty but dignified mother.Though on the negative side when the build up is this crazy for a movie, the chances are it’s not going to live up to your expectations. Although the story is interestingthe actors all do an amazing job and the movie is shot beautifullyyou should be warned that the film does drag on and certain parts may seem boring due to the length and at times slow pace of the film.So for anyone expecting a similar cinematic experience as say Scarface, New Jack City or The Godfather, you may be left feeling a little disappointed. Nevertheless, American Gangster is thought provoking cinema.