In one particularly poignant scene of ‘American Gangster,’ a government official asks detective Richie Roberts if the most powerful drug lord in New York is Italian, thinking he already knew the answer.
When Richie (Russell Crowe) answers truthfully, that Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is black, the official laughs incredulously, wondering why Richie would joke with his law enforcement career on the line. No black man could ever achieve in just a few years what the Italian Mafia had done in a century, he said.
Therein lies the moral dilemma posed by director Ridley Scott: Frank is a criminal, a ruthless mobster motivated by cash. Still, the viewer can’t help but feel a strong sense of patriotism, proud that a black man in the 1970s could accomplish success unparalleled by any mobster before him.
Gangster movies are nothing new, but ‘American Gangster’ is something different. Just check the title. In ‘The Godfather,’ the bad guys are distinctly Italian. Last year’s Best Picture, ‘The Departed,’ followed the Irish mob in Boston. Even this year’s hit crime drama, ‘Eastern Promises’ introduces the Russia Mafia to an American audience.
In a way, ‘American Gangster’ is a classic rags-to-riches tale, and the film makes sure the audience roots for Frank as Richie tries to bring him down. Frank is American through and through, ruling over a city that appreciates toughness and power in a nation that values ingenuity and resiliency. He started as a chauffeur, just trying to support his family, and single-handedly established arguably the most powerful and intricate drug ring in American history, making millions in the process.
And really, isn’t that really the American Dream?
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