“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.