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American Gangster (2007) – Organized Crime Beyond the Mafia

(American Gangster movie poster)

(Content warning for discussions of organized crime, drug trafficking, substance abuse, and racism.)

With dozens of iconic films in its repertoire, gangster movies are a staple of American cinema. There’s something inherently fascinating about the inner workings of organized crime, a mysterious and turbulent real-world phenomenon, adapted to the dramatic world of film.

Many gangster films, such as The Godfather, tend to focus on the most iconic gangs in history: Italian mobster families, particularly the Italian-American ones in New York City, who impacted the history of the United States severely. Italy is, to this day, the place people most associate with organized crime (to the point where the name for the notorious Sicilian gang, “Mafia”, is now often used as a general term for any big gang.)

However, this is far from the only place that major gang history comes from. In American Gangster, the 2007 film directed by Ridley Scott, a fictionalized account is told of the real crime boss, Frank Lucas- an African-American man whose tactics put Italian crime families out of business.

The film follows the story of Lucas’ (Denzel Washington) rise and fall as he goes from being the driver of a previous Harlem crime boss, Bumpy Johnson, to owning a monopoly on the illegal drug trade. At the same time, we follow Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), a well-natured cop struggling with fighting organized crime while dealing with rampant corruption in his workforce.

Now, don’t be fooled; besides the basic facts, this film isn’t remotely accurate to the real story of Frank Lucas. While Richie Roberts was a real person who arrested Lucas, for example, his contributions to the tracking were actually minor. The movie does, however, make for a captivating story and has some interesting comments about American society in the sixties and seventies.

Lucas’ tactic to monopolize the drug trade is what he was most well-known for in real life; normally, drug traders would use middlemen to acquire drugs, which would be costly and lead to these substances being weaker in strength. Instead, Lucas bought heroin directly from the source in Thailand, making them cheaper and even more dangerous than before. The movie often cuts between Lucas gaining more status and power and the increasing victims of high-purity heroin, demonstrating the severe dangers of illegal drug use and the widespread harm of Lucas’ dominance on crime as he swims in wealth.

The movie condemns police corruption and the drug trade while tackling the racial politics of Frank Lucas. In 1970s America, black men were not expected to be intelligent, organized, and calculated, let alone in such a way that can usurp the likes of major white organized crime organizations. As Roberts gets a lead on Lucas, he’s discredited as higher-ups ridicule and dismiss the idea that a black man could accomplish such a feat as becoming the most powerful crime lord in New York City, all hidden under the facade of a quiet life.

As police and investigators dismiss the capabilities of a black man to become so powerful under their noses, Lucas uses his newfound power and money to make a life for himself, running clubs and buying new homes for his family members. It takes years for Roberts and his small team of enlisted helpers to track down Lucas, and it was still a while before his monopoly on the drug trade was finally tracked and toppled in 1975.

While I watch gangster films from time to time, an even bigger fan of them is my friend, Anae Bolton. As she was the person who recommended this movie to me for review, I interviewed her to see exactly what she thought about it.

What is the biggest intrigue to this movie for you?

Bolton: It was really the first African-American gangster film I had ever watched or seen about, and- well, besides New Jack City, but I’d never got around to watching New Jack City. But yeah, it was a big staple, and I just thought Frank was so smart for cutting the middlemen out and going straight to the actual people who made the- the heroin- (laughs)

And he’s a real person.

Bolton: Yeah, he was a real person.

As a mafia media enthusiast, what stands out about this movie compared to other movies about gangs? (Other than the African-American aspect.)

Bolton: Really, that Frank was such a trendsetter at the time. It was the 1970s, he had gone way above and beyond and cut out the middleman- which, everyone pays the middleman up to this point- and then he just cut them straight out of the gate. Made tons of money, and brought in his closest families to help sell the drugs and make the drugs. And it ended up being one of his own family that got him incarcerated.

What do you think this movie is trying to say about society?

Bolton: Society, for me, has always looked down upon African-American people, and it really was- well, not an inspirational film, but kind of like seeing this African-American make his own business and build himself up from just a driver to the head crime boss of Harlem.

Though Lucas’ actions killed many, organized crime such as his is indeed similar to a typical American business in many ways: whichever organization profits the most goes on top. The skill it takes to monopolize organized crime is much like being a businessman, a parallel that the film calls to attention multiple times. And though the United States has a history of shunning and underestimating black Americans, Lucas, for a time, managed to rule New York City as a true American gangster.

Available on Max and Hulu, American Gangster should not be taken as a historical film, but it is a fascinating fictional tale about organized crime in American society and the systems that enable it.

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    Robert L.Jun 9, 2024 at 8:05 pm

    It’s good movie. Forgot some details like Frank Lucas was given an option to take the gambling half of Bumpy’s business or the drug half. Lucas was hiding from the mob when he met his Vietnam plug. The trip to the golden triangle probably never happened.