the better truth

the better truth

Monday, November 05, 2007

American Gangster (2007)

All in the Family Values

When you think of 1970s black New York drug dealers the word that comes to mind is “Superfly”. Curtis Mayfield’s composition trumps Gordon Parks’ direction in conveying the angst of “tryin’ to get over”. To quote the song: “The aim of his role was to move a lot of blow; ask him his dream – what does it mean? He wouldn’t know – ‘Can’t be like the rest’ is the most he’ll confess but the time’s running out and there’s no happiness”. Ridley Scott re-visits the mean streets of New York in the age of marshmallow shoes, wa-wa guitars, view-blocking afros and real-life home grown (not Colombian) drug dealers who would be known even to the most sheltered of Upper East side white kids. Scott’s “American Gangster” doesn’t give us “Superfly” and that is the film’s strength as well as its weakness.

All New Yorkers in the 1970s feared Nicky Barnes – the flamboyant Harlem heroin trafficker whose "Mr. Untouchable" image loomed in the tabloids in the same way "the teflon don" John Gotti would during the 1980s. Only the insiders knew of Frank Lucas. Scott’s film reveals why – Mr. Lucas was in business while Nicky was in show business. Lucas combined a Puritan work-ethic, his version of family values with street smarts and Machiavellian ruthlessness. The two kingpins cross paths in “American Gangster”. There is a workplace collegiality but Mr. Lucas makes clear that his organization is more interested in heartland values rather than “bling”. Scott paints a portrait of Lucas as a solid apprentice who carefully studied the master. Bumpy Johnson was the strong arm for the traditional mafia in Harlem and ruled the roost. Lucas learned how things were done and, more importantly, how it could be done better. He craved his mentor’s success but questioned why Bumpy needed the mob.

Lucas’s foil, Detective Richie Roberts, equally ambitious and matches Lucas’ ability to morally compartmentalize his life. Whereas Lucas makes family the bedrock of his career, Roberts loses his to neglect and philandering. Ironically both men share an inhuman devotion to their amoral “code of honor” which eventually renders the same result. Roberts’ wife, son and best friend are sacrificed on the alter of “being the best crime-fighter in the world” while Lucas does the same by “being the best drug dealer in Harlem”. Scott deserves praise for reviving the gritty New York of Abe Beame, "Shaft" and "The French Connection". It all looked right. The script, although suffering from over-exposition of Roberts material woes, was strong. The secondary casting was excellent… as was lighting, set direction, costumes… So why did the film feel, to use the words of Lucas’ mentor: “that there’s no heart in it”?

The primary problem lies in the choice of the two stars – Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe. These are excellent actors who have been miscast. Crowe failed to master the accent – a startling error for someone who is usually technically flawless. More to the point – he was not convincing as the Jewish gadfly. Compare Crowe to Sean Penn in “Carlito’s Way” or Meryl Streep in “Prime”: these goyem are believable as Jewish New Yorkers. Crowe, despite heartfelt moments, failed to deliver the goods. The performance had a forced professionalism – an unspoken: “I’m doing this to establish the fact that…” Contrast this with some of the secondary players – Carla Gugino WAS the forlorn neglected wife; Ruby Dee WAS the kingpin’s mother. Crowe is merely good – it isn’t enough.

Washington’s Lucas had a subtle but equally damning defect: the hardness was flawless. No doubt there was a great deal at stake in choosing to portray a real gangster who is currently being glorified in Rap songs. One can hear activists from all sides questioning the decision of the leading African American movie star to portray an unmistakable, real-life, bad-guy who preyed on members of the community. Washington’s chooses a stony un-repentance that flattens the character. It might shield him from criticism of making Lucas out to be a weak black man – but for dramatic effect vulnerability is preferable – think of his rendition of the crooked cop in “Training Day” – that sociopath had resonance. Lucas has some of the dreariness of a monomaniacal entrepreneur. You might want to buy stock in Apple or Microsoft but how many people really enjoyed: “Pirates of Silicon Valley”? – the dramatization of Gates’ and Jobs’ rise to the top. In other words the mechanics of Washington’s steely creation of an organization that produced the best dope at the cheapest price fails to be as dramatically compelling as the story of an insecure country bumpkin who made it to the top of New York City’s drug world. In Washington’s portrayal there is anger but no real fear. There is rage but no compassion. The denouement is the scene in which Ruby Dee pleads with her son to realize “you don’t kill cops”. He is respectful but firm. She then slaps him. Here is the moment in which the mask should have fallen. This should have been the mortal blow. Here was Washington’s opportunity to give Lucas the hint of a soul. Unfortunately he let it pass and the stone-cold Lucas lived on until the closing credits.

It is interesting to note that New York Magazine ran an interview with the real life Lucas prior to the release of the film. He prattled on about “best product at the best price”. In this piece he was paired with his old nemesis/friend Nicky Barnes. Predictable, given our criminal justice system, both these murderous sociopaths are free after giving up all their compatriots. Meeting real life gangsters has the same effect of witnessing a bar-fight or watching pornography - the initial thrill quickly morphs into repulsion built on boredom. Lucas and Barnes are your typical depraved “businessmen” – with a bit of education either would have been a captain of industry making excuses about hiring child-workers, poisoning local villages, painting toys with lead, building orphanages on nuclear waste sites, making cars that explode, hiring thugs to kill union workers, turning over clients to oppressive goverments….. In this case they’re stuck with justifying a more obvious, less acceptable form of gangsterism – the street drug trade. At the heart of every successful gangster is a bore who sees violence as another strategy in the corporate tool-box. Master Lucas reveals in the interview:

“In our business, you get paid by fear. When the fear factor comes in, that’s when you start to make money. Violence is part of it. You ain’t gonna sweet talk no motherfucker”

There you have it – and if he gone to Harvard business school he might be using the phrases “skill-set”, “thinking outside the box”, “pushing the envelope”… Ironically “American Gangster” is peppered with talks about customer satisfaction, knowing your clients, building a brand, loyalty to the organization…. Kudos for Ridley Scott for taking the time to understand the heart of the beast – but dramatically speaking audiences prefer the type of thugs in “Goodfellas”, “Scarface” and “The Godfather”…. In fact it should be noted that Pablo Escobar was known for endlessly watching Marlo Brando in action. One of his prized possessions was a box set of Coppola’s masterpiece (Godfather I, II & III) – discovered in his private prison after his ignoble end. (He also had a photograph of himself dressed as Pancho Villa) Pablo died alone running on a roof-top recalling his early police escapes when he was a grave stone robber – this time he didn’t make it. He was a desperate egotist who fell into crime – a successful business genius but at heart your run-of-the-mill car thief, burglar, bank robber….. Crime is about people who lack empathy and possess an unattractive desperation – this is a major dramatic challenge. Even the most successful drug dealer of all time knew he could never compete with Hollywood’s reality. The dream-factory knows how to create bad guys who CHOOSE to be gangsters. Hollywood crime villains make their own rules without hints of being governed by the petty forces of careerism and practicality.

Which brings me back to “Superfly”. Show business is about myth – about a shaped reality that delivers escape. “Superfly” rules the 70s New York drug world because he was what Nicky Barnes wanted to be: the noble, flashy anti-hero – aware of his desperation and vulnerability. Frank Lucas really wanted to be head of a Fortune 500 company – the film even has him quip about the lack of opportunity on Wall Street – its tongue and cheek BUT.... This might be “real” but that’s not the kind of gangster audiences pay to see. Flashy romantic desperados are the real ticket – remember the song: “‘Can’t be like the rest’ is the most he’ll confess but the time’s running out and there’s no happiness”. Its impossible to imagine Denzel “trying to get over” – his thought it all through and made calculated choices based on the highest return. It might make for good business – but not good show business. Everyone feels the heavy hand of corporate rule - we wish to believe our gangsters are immune.

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