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Gangster glory

Movies | Ridley Scott film makes killer a symbol of black progress

Issue: "Reinventing Hillary," Nov. 17, 2007

"People are focusing on some of the wrong things when it comes to Frank," the real Richard Roberts, the cop-turned-lawyer phenomenally portrayed by Russell Crowe in Ridley Scott's new movie, American Gangster, told The New York Times. "These guys are killers, not to be admired."

Scott acknowledges the killer aspect to the story of Frank Lucas (another Oscar-worthy performance from Denzel Washington), the drug kingpin who ruled Harlem in the mid-1970s with his potent brand of heroin, "Blue Magic." He portrays Lucas committing brutal murder and includes several overdose scenes that show the results of dealing syndicates on the drug-addicted masses. But he doesn't seem to agree that Lucas is not a man to be admired. Through both Washington's dialogue and the racist attitudes of the authorities, Scott not only confers upon Lucas all the glamor typical of this genre, but he also makes him a symbol of black progress.

Scott's film is set in the '70s, and it seems to take a page from '70s-style filmmaking. All the violence and profanity one might expect from an R-rated gangster film is present, but the amount of unwarranted (and, frankly, unappealing) graphic sex and nudity harkens back to Taxi Driver and Apocalypse Now.

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Since that time, the idolization of Italian-style organized crime has become a sickness in the hip-hop culture. From music groups that name themselves after mafia dons to rappers who brag about their exploits as drug dealers and pimps, influential "gangsta rap" peddles Lucas' philosophy, "Either you're somebody or you ain't nobody," to the damage of black youth. Their behavior and lyrics sell the same message: The somebodies have money, never mind how they got it. The nobodies don't, never mind how principled they are.

Scott may claim he intended American Gangster to be a cautionary tale, but his appeal to the gangsta rap crowd (which at times borders on pandering, as when Lucas orders Cristal, the champagne of choice for entertainers like Puff Daddy and Snoop Dogg) tells a different story.

Megan Basham
Megan Basham

Megan, a regular correspondent for WORLD News Group, is a writer and film critic living in Memphis, Tenn.. She is the author of Beside Every Successful Man: A Woman's Guide to Having It All.

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