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The Statesman

The Student News Site of Stony Brook University

The Statesman


    American Gangster

    The gangster figure has been in film for a century, and there has been at least one for every year since. The majority of them have centered on the Italian American gangster, most notably ‘Little Caesar’ (1930), ‘Scarface’ (1932), ‘The Godfather’ (1972), and ‘Goodfellas’ (1990).

    ‘American Gangster’ just may be the first film to feature an African American gangster, not ‘gangsta.” This past weekend it was number one and made over $40 million. Why?

    The simplest reason could be that audiences wanted to see a Ridley Scott picture staring his past collaborator Russell Crowe and the great Denzel Washington. But it goes deeper than that.

    ‘American Gangster’ is about a man who came from poverty in North Carolina, gained the respect of a powerful Harlem father figure, and then gained his own power all by defying the laws of the American system.

    His story is reminiscent of most other gangster movies.The average person who dreams of having power, money, and respect will enjoy watching the gangster film to temporarily live vicariously through the character only to return to his law-abiding ways afterwards.

    Richie Roberts, played by Crowe, is a Jewish cop with the cleanest conscience, having turned in an incredible amount of money in unmarked bills from an investigation instead of keeping it for himself and his partner. Meanwhile, his wife is divorcing him and would like to move with their son to Las Vegas because New York City is no place to raise a child.

    Frank Lucas, played by Washington, is the second hand man of a Harlem Godfather who takes over after the old man’s death. After listening to a news report, which might as well have been an advertisement, of soldiers in Vietnam developing addictions to pure top quality drugs, Frank sets up the strongest and most profitable heroin trafficking business; calling his product Blue Magic. However, Richie is not after the dealers.

    The main female characters were not passed off as problems or arm candy. Richie’s ex-wife is resisting patriarchal tradition by separating a father from his son. Frank’s newlywed wife, Eva, represents the woman’s fascination with male power. Fully aware of his business, behavior, and the risks she remains at his side until it becomes too much.

    Unfortunately, Frank’s mother does not give advice to her son after it is too late. What many audiences may regard as its most offensive quality is the completely singular representation of Harlem’s African Americans as drug addicts.

    At two and a half hours, ‘American Gangster’ slowly, but justifiably moves from a beginning to an end. The characters develop from low to high power in their respective roles. Richie, at first an undercover cop eventually led his own narcotics team: as well as passing the bar exam and prosecuting the case’s suspects. Frank, at first his boss’ muscle and then reaping the unbelievable benefits from his well acted out plan: as well as from a lone bachelor to family-man and husband.

    If you go to the trivia page at for ‘American Gangster,’ there is some interesting information about the film’s production, such as who was originally supposed to direct and star. It would have been much different had Don Cheadle been cast as Frank Lucas or Brad Pitt as Richie Roberts.

    Also on it says that other considered titles were ‘The Return of Superfly’ and ‘Tru Blu.” ‘American Gangster’ survived and surpassed its initial problems to bring to the viewer a rare in quality film.

    *To learn more about the gangster figure in American cinema, take HUI 338: Images of Italian American.

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