“A Dream Spoiled”

If you’ve ever watched the HBO show, The Wire, you have experienced some of the finest that television has to offer. With its well-written cast of characters, the show breaks down the economics of the drug trade, the lives that the drug trade impacts, and why it is so hard to win this war on drugs. However, it’s not like this war on drugs was declared this decade. No, this is a war that has been waged for decades with one of its rises being in the 1970s. This is the territory that American Gangster covers.

On the flip side of the morally ambiguous world of police and crime for which he won an Oscar with Training Day, Denzel Washington portrays Frank Lucas. At once debonair and affable then ruthless and brutal, Lucas inherits the Harlem crime empire from his boss/mentor, Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III). Taking the American Dream by the throat, he corners the drug market by cutting out all of the middle men then selling a product (heroin) that was twice as good for half the price.

This puts him in the crosshairs of police detective, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) who pursues Lucas at the expense of his family. The script, adapted from a New York magazine piece by Mark Jacobson, was by Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List and All the King’s Men). The way the story is structured, there isn’t much of a reunion between the star of Virtuosity, presumably to heighten and contrast the similarities between the two characters.

“You think you’re going to heaven because you’re honest.” –Laurie Roberts (Carla Gugino)

When you can’t tell the crooks from the cops you’re going to have a problem. In “the game”, there isn’t much that passes of a code of ethics. Any semblance of an elevated sense of morality is done to the denigration of everything else, as good values become twisted and misapplied. Frank Lucas becomes a folk hero, a Robin Hood of Harlem, as he embraces honesty, integrity, hard work, and family. He employs/takes care of family, takes his mother (played by Ruby Dee) to church every Sunday, keeps a low profile, turns out a quality product, and even passes out turkeys at Thanksgiving. Richie earns the scorn of his brother officers by finding nearly a million dollars and turning it in rather than sharing the dirty proceeds.

“You are what you are in this world, that’s either one of two things: either you’re somebody or you’re nobody.” –Frank

Frank takes on the level of myth, with not-always-subtle racism providing his cloak, as stripping the drug trade from the Mafia couldn’t possibly be done by a black man. Frank had money, power, beautiful wife, all the trappings of success, yet he ultimately failed in his responsibility as the older brother. Instead of looking out for them, his example corrupted and destroyed them. He failed the example of Jesus’ words when he said “Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49-50)

“I don’t think they want this to stop. It employs too many people.” –Ritchie

The reality is that the drug trade represents too much money, an economy fueled by the misery and degradation of others. The so-called war on drugs, despite the sincerity and best intentions of its architects, is fought with too few honest people. At the street level, it is waged on people who have little hope in the American Dream, disenfranchised from the system. At its highest reaches, too much money lines the pockets of that very same structure.

Drugs are a systematic corruption. They represent an enemy within, a temptation of our inner weakness, as well as an enemy without, with the consequences of those choices. The ripple effects of an individual’s choice to do drugs damages a lot of lives. Organizations formed to fight the effects of that corruption, though made up of flawed people, have to be about their mission or else they need to be the first cleansed (the corruption rooted out).

Any time the movie veers from Frank Lucas doing business or Richie Roberts dogged pursuit of him (such as the scenes between Roberts and his wife), the movie loses some steam. An engrossing story with two actors at the height of their gifts: Denzel with his charismatic charm and Crowe with his sloppy hang-dog jovialness. Which leaves only two real complaints: one, it was too bad the leads shared so little screen time actually together; two, it was too bad the rest of the talented cast wasn’t given more to do besides service the story.

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