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Reel Critic:

A grimy gangster film with heart, guts

November 07, 2007|By Carolyn Howard-Johnson

“American Gangster,” starring Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington, is based on a true story. Frankly I am tired of hearing “based on a true story.” The factual story of Frank Lucas, American gangster, would have been seedy and grimy. The spot-on story of his nemesis, cop and eventually lawyer, Richie Roberts, would have been only a notch above that and hardly the stuff that great movies are made of.

Instead “American Gangster” explores two amazingly similar lives. Richie and Frankie are both living Horatio Alger stories. We have compassion for them because of what they’ve become. Frankie drags himself up from poor black in the South to holding property worth $250 million. Richie pulls himself from a bad marriage and a slummy 1970s New York Police Department, rife with crime, to an attorney who chooses to defend people against what can often be an unblinking system. That these adversaries share many of the same personal characteristics is a technique Shakespeare often used and that — obviously — still works today.

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What I found most interesting, however, is how the script examines a time (the Vietnam War era) when civil rights in America was still in a shambles and intolerance was still endemic. It also examines that human condition we call “denial.” How we fool ourselves into believing that what we want to do is what we need to do and that what we choose to do is right.

Denzel plays Frankie, a man with charisma to spare. When confronted with a way to avoid the law that is bearing down on him, he expresses his disdain for becoming an ex-patriot by saying, “This is my home, my country. This is AMERICA!”

The irony is the man is bringing drugs to America in the coffins of American soldiers to feed the American drug trade, the same product that is enslaving American soldiers, addicting Americans of all stripes and killing his own American people in Harlem. Now that’s a human condition worth exploring, whether it’s done in fiction or based on a true story.

Other lines like “It’s gotten so big you just can’t find your way no more,” and “There’s no one in charge,” still feel current. It’s that discontent we are living with. This movie pokes at us. It is not about “then” or somebody else’s “true story.” It is about us. Little has changed. The intolerance. The drugs. The temptations. The system that isn’t working.

This is what director Ridley Scott and screenwriter Steven Zaillian are doing with “American Gangster.” And it’s possible that even Mark Jacobson, who wrote the original article “The Return of the Superfly,” was working with the same themes.

So, ignore the comments like “there is nothing new here.” There never is anything new. As Joseph Campbell says, there are only a few themes, and every story is based on them. The themes in this movie are some of the best of those few, so good that you may barely notice that the movie runs 157 minutes.


?CAROLYN HOWARD-JOHNSON is an author and poet living in Glendale. ?CAROLYN HOWARD-JOHNSON is an author and poet living in Glendale.

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