Film & DVD Review: American Gangster

  • Universal Pictures
  • Released in UK: 16 November 2007
  • Running time: 157 minutes
  • MPAA rating: RReviewed by Jacqueline Sharp

    Directed by Ridley Scott, based on the ‘true’ story of the life of Frank Lucas, (Denzel Washington). Frank is a black American Kingpin drug dealer, who dominated Harlem, 114th Street in the 60s. He was an infamous heroin pusher delivering his 100% true blue brand to junkies. Screenwriter Steven Zaillian, has been savaged by several critics who dispute some of its content as being nothing more than the lies of Frank Lucas. One such critic is Mayme Johnson, age 93, the widow to Elsworth Bumpy Johnson.

    Elsworth Bumpy Johnson, says she intends to set the record straight with her forthcoming novel, co-authored with Karen E Quinones, titled Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband, which will be published in February 2008. According to Mayme, American Gangster lies in part. For example she disputes the fact that Bumpy died in Frank’s arms as shown in the opening scene of the film.

    Mayme also disputes the relationship Frank had with Bumpy, and is annoyed that American Gangster sees Frank Lucas being portrayed as the right hand man to Bumpy, her late husband. Mayme comments about what Bumpy thought of Frank, and goes on, “he was a flunky to bumpy” and quotes “bumpy found it easier to trust a thief than a liar”.

    Another critic of the film is Author Chepesiuk, who has just released an account of Lucas life in The Untold story of Frank Lucas. He has doubts about the accuracy of the film based on his research delving into federal court records archives. He says that “Frank turned on drug dealers” and that things don’t add up in the movie. The dispute over which Frank Lucas turned over to the authorities is still live!

    It does seem odd that a 70-year sentence was whittled down to 17 years, as shown in the film, plus police protection thrown in for himself, his wife and child. Johnson, age 93, the widow to Elsworth Bumpy Johnson.

    Some critics such as Chepesiuk, say Frank rapped on big time drug dealers, leading to many arrests, at his time of arrest, backed up according to Federal reports, as quoted by Chepesiuk. American Gangster, however, portrays Frank as a hero, bringing the bad cops down. However in the film, there is no mention of drug barons being turned in!

    Scenes in the film show Frank paying off bad cops, greedy for a backhander. Corruption is rife. These guys would do anything for stashes of money, in return for keeping their mouths shut for a while or looking the other way. Later we see the corrupt cops can turning nasty, brutal, when threatened.

    Frank, (Denzel Washington), in the role of heavyweight cash cow and drug baron is a convincing gangster and big time dealer. The film doesn’t glamourise though as we see his world crumble and the strains placed on his family by his moral choices. His family is shown in danger several times during the movie. There is a heartfelt scene near the end of the movie, where his mother, Mama Lucas (Rudy Dee) witnesses his arrest.

    I couldn’t help think what she had been through. Her son Frank Lucas came from Knoxville in Tennessee, age 16, entering Harlem, 114th street, and a ghetto. Then as a 16-year-old lad he began a life of crime where it is alleged he “stole diamonds and broke a security guards jaw”.

    The movie portrayed Frank Lucas as being streetwise, and tough. Yet as the story unfolds we question whether he thought it was a worthwhile life.

    The director Ridley Scott plays around with the duality of good and bad cop. Good cop being Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), and bad cop, Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin). This certainly added weight and complexity to the script.

    I had to clench my teeth sometimes though, at several where junkies were seen shooting heroin into their bodies with needles. One particular scene made me cringe, when a junkie was seen lying dead in front of their child, as a result of an overdose. It certainly brings home the consequences of the drug dealing.

    Leaving disputes about accuracy aside and just viewed as a story American Gangster is great entertainment. I enjoyed it tremendously and would recommend it.


    Director: Ridley Scott
    Screenwriter: Steven Zaillian
    Based on an article by: Mark Jacobson
    Producers: Brian Grazer, Ridley Scott


    Frank Lucas: Denzel Washington
    Richie Roberts: Russell Crowe
    Huey Lucas: Chiwetel Ejiofor
    Detective Trupo: Josh Brolin
    Eva: Lymari Nadal
    Lou: Ted Levine
    Nate: Roger Guenveur Smith
    Freddie Spearman: John Hawkes
    Moses Jones: RZA
    Nickey Barnes: Cuba Gooding Jr.
    Dominic: Armand Assante
    Mama Lucas: Rudy Dee

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