Working with a film: American Gangster
The object of this film is to give a detailed description of the black underworld of crime as it existed in the late 1960s and early 1970s. This provides a picture of the kind of environment that many blacks have had to contend with – a culture of violence, corruption and poverty. It also provides insight into relations between whites and blacks and the boundaries between the two communities at that time.
The film American Gangster from 2007 is 2 hours and 37 minutes long. It was filmed on location in New York and New Jersey. You will hear a lot of accents in the film, including New York, New Jersey, Southern (from North Carolina) and black dialects brought from the South to Harlem. The action of the film takes place in the years 1968 to 1971, except for a short sequence from 1991 at the very end. It tells the story of Frank Lucas, a real-life figure who became a successful gangster in Harlem by smuggling heroin into the United States directly from South East Asia in American military planes returning from the Vietnam War. Because the Italian mafia controlled most heroin traffic in the US at that time, it was unusual for a black man to have an independent criminal enterprise as large as the one Lucas built. His success caught the attention of New Jersey detective Richie Roberts. The action of the film revolves around Roberts’ attempts to bring Lucas to justice and break up his business.
The film was rated R for “Restricted” by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). That means anyone under 17 who wanted to see it at a cinema was required to have an “Accompanying Parent or Adult Guardian along.” It was given this rating because it contains “violence, pervasive drug content and language, nudity and sexuality.” This is not surprising, given that it provides a detailed picture of the criminal underworld of Harlem. Be prepared for some brutal scenes.
Cast of characters:
Frank Lucas - Denzel Washington
Det. Richie Roberts - Russell Crowe
Huey Lucas - Chiwetel Ejiofor
Detective Trupo - Josh Brolin
Detective Lou Toback - Ted Levine
Laurie Roberts - Carla Gugino
Nicky Barnes - Cuba Gooding Jr.
Eva - Lymari Nadal
Form groups of three. This film depicts a specific time and place in American history. The time is during the Vietnam War. The place is the black neighborhoods of Harlem. Do these settings bring to mind any associations; i.e. images, thoughts or facts you already know? Compare associations. Then make an internet search of some of the terms in the following list.
- Slums in New York
- Escalation in Vietnam
- Soul food
- Domino effect
- Lady Day
- Viet Cong
- Numbers game
- Tet offensive
- Muhammad Ali
Watching the film
Watch the film until you get to the scene when Richie is chosen to head a task force to stop drug trafficking and Frank brings his family up from North Carolina (scene 7). Then stop the film and discuss the following questions in group.
- What kind of man is Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson, Frank’s boss? What role does he seem to play in Harlem? What kinds of people come to his funeral and what does this tell us about the community Frank Lucas is a part of?
- Frank seems to be a quiet and polite man, yet we know he can be a vicious killer. This is an unexpected combination of aspects in black Harlem. How do you think he came to be this way?
- What business insight is it that allows Frank to begin on the road to his success in the drug trade? Why does he insist on using his family to organize his business? Would you characterize him as a family man?
- Why is Richie Roberts so intensely disliked by his fellow police officers after he discovers almost a million dollars in the back of a car? What does this tell us about the police department for which he works?
- What do you think is motivating Richie? What does he seem to want? Who do you find most interesting, Frank or Richie?
- Richie’s marriage is on the rocks. Why?
After you have seen the whole film
Keep the same groups and work with at least one question among each of the following headings:
- Write down some of the things you have learned from this film about the black underworld in Harlem and then exchange this information in your group. Sum up what you have learned together and join another group to compare answers.
- Describe the relationship between the police and the black community in this film. What instances of racism did you find in this relationship?
- Why do you suppose Frank’s mother is silent about where Frank is making his money? Shouldn’t she have accused him of dishonesty or disapproved of him? What does she tell him at end of the film?
- Frank Lucas shoots and kills a man in broad daylight on a Harlem street. Why doesn’t anyone protest or call for the police? What does that convey to the audience about the conditions people in the black community had to live with?
- “I took care of Harlem and Harlem is sure as hell going to take care of me,” says Frank at the end of the film. Is either of these statements true in any sense?
Crime and punishment
- Richie Roberts is honest. This contrasts with many other policemen in the film. How does the film deal with this issue? Why would it be difficult for a policeman to stay honest when dealing with the drug trade?
- Because Frank cooperates with Richie in naming crooked cops and drug sellers, his prison sentence is reduced from 70 to 15 years. Is this reduction justified, in your opinion? We know that Frank has murdered men. Should he get off so lightly?
- At the end of the film Frank says to Richie, “Do you think that putting me behind bars is really going to change anything on the street?” Do you think putting people in prison is an effective way to stop the drug trade? What other ways it might be used to stop it?
- Do you know of other TV shows and films that deal with the issue of drug trafficking? Do they give a different view of the problem? Compare one or two with American Gangster. What do they have in common? How are they different?
Crime as business
- Al Capone, the Chicago gangster, once said “Prohibition is a business. All I do is supply the public demand.” Can the same thing be said of Frank Lucas? When does supplying a public demand become a public offence?
- Frank tells his family that Bumpy Johnson – his former boss – “… thought he owned his own company, but he just managed it. I own my own company.” What is Frank referring to?
- Frank talks about Blue Magic as a “brand name” and describes his activities the following way – “I sell a product better than the competition and at a lower price than the competition.” Do you consider him to be a businessman?
- At one point in the film Richie says, “You know, I don’t think they want this to stop. About 100,000 people would be out of a job.” Who are “they”? Why wouldn’t they want to the drug trade to stop?
Crime and entertainment
- Frank Lucas is the major character of this film. In that sense he is the film’s “hero”. Yet he is a violent killer engaged in a destructive and illegal activity, drug dealing. The film tries to keep him from seeming too admirable. How? Does it succeed or does he seem too much like a hero by the end of the film?
- The “good guy” in this film is Richie Roberts. His story is “cross-shot” with Frank’s; that is, the movie moves back and forth between the two, who only meet at the end. Yet their stories are intertwined in a variety of ways. Here are a few factors that appear in both stories. How are they used to compare and contrast the two?
· corrupt police
- There is a good deal of violence in this film. Is it used to gain audience interest or is it just an unavoidable part of the environment in which the film takes place? Where is the line between these two? Have you ever seen a film in which violence and crime are used purely for their entertainment value? Compare experiences.
- To be believable, characters in a film have to be understandable. Looking back at the film, do you feel you understand why Frank Lucas became a criminal? Why Richie Roberts stayed honest? What can you recall from the film that supports your opinion?
- What do you think is the most memorable scene in this film, the one that you will remember when you think of the film in the future? What made this scene so striking?Compare your choice with others in your group.
- The following statements are taken from actual reviews of the movie. Pick the one that fits your opinion best or the one you most disagree with and then write a short persuasive essay promoting your view.
- “If it were not for some adept performances, American Gangster could almost be a particularly brutal made-for-TV movie.” Chris Laverty
- “(Denzel) Washington may have not wanted to glorify the Harlem drug dealer, but with his superb acting skills he has created one of the coolest gangsters since Tony Montana.” Adam Tobias
- “American Gangster is a gritty and entertaining throwback to classic gangster films, with its lead performers firing on all cylinders.” Rotten Tomatoes
- “It isn't that American Gangster is a bad film or is even unenjoyable. But don't be surprised if, when you walk out of the theater, you forget the film ever existed.” Brandon Fibbs
- “The best thing about the film is that there are top-flight performances from both Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe who create interesting, rounded characters out of potential clichés.” David Stratton
- “American Gangster delivers fine drama, gripping performances and a dizzy morality tale. But it should have been oh, so much better.” Christian Toto
- See if you can find out what happened to the real Richie Roberts and Frank Lucas after we last see them in the film. Write a short report on one or both of them.
- Outlaws have an important place in American history and fiction. Write an essay about another American outlaw you have heard about. Call your essay “Dark Heroes”.
- Retell the story of Frank Lucas from the perspective of one of his cousins. Adopt a name and write it as a first person account. Keep in mind that when Frank went to prison, so did 30 of his family members.
- Write a short description of the black underworld of Harlem based on the discussion you had about it under Black Culture, question 1 above.