Directed by Ridley Scott. USA. 2007.

Reviewed by Kayleigh Lewis and Howard Schumann

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American Gangster (2007), a biopic movie which shows the highs and lows of drug running and all its implications, really sets the scene of what the New York underworld was really like. The film sees Denzel Washington play right-hand man turned drugs baron Frank Lucas. In this shocking depiction of late 60’s-early 70’s drug abuse across New York, we are shown the harsh realities faced by the lower classes in relation to heroin use. Lucas’ relationship with the Mafia and rival gangs is shown throughout, only to reiterate his power. 

Washington’s character exploits addiction in an attempt to fill the shoes of his deceased employer and mentor Bumpy Johnson. The lengths he goes to mean that Lucas goes above and far beyond the lengths shown of Bumpy. Lucas becomes the number one importer and dealer of 100% pure heroin, or blue magic as he brands it, within the Harlem district of Manhattan. 

By exploiting his contacts he manages to import masses of the drug right under the government’s nose during the Vietnam War. By importing straight from the source Lucas is able to sell a superior product for a fraction of the price of anything else on the market, thus becoming the most powerful man in the Manhattan drugs market. 

The story also follows Detective Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe, a straight cop mixed up in a corrupt police world. Crowe plays this character perfectly, showing us well the two sides of Roberts; the absent father struggling with his demons, and the straight cop who wants nothing but to bring justice to the shady town he lives in. 

This film is a perfect depiction of the rise and fall, weakness and addiction, right and wrong of this period in America. Ridley Scott does an amazing job with the films direction, and although the film is lengthy, in never seems to drag. The film is well paced and fascinating. Never do we find ourselves wondering ‘who’s that?’ as every character is utilised within the main storyline. There are a few eye-opening moments, such as when we see the distrust within the drug den, where women are forced to work naked to avoid temptation of theft. 

Although the idea of ‘just another’ gangster movie may stop you from seeing this film, you would be mad not to go watch it. Yes, you may be left with a feeling of familiarity to films such as Blow, but this fact based film is a real eye-opener. A definite must- see.

Heroin addicts who need help making the decision to get treatment only need to process information from books, magazines, websites and films about what’s in store for them if they do not do anything about their addiction.

Kayleigh Lewis 

View the trailer for American Gangster at:

Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is not only a hard-hitting exposé of a Harlem crime lord who outwitted the Mafia and gained control of the drug trade, but a revelation of the unholy alliance that existed between drug traffickers, corrupt police officers, and big business elites in New York during the late 1960s. Denzel Washington is Frank Lucas, a heroin dealer and organized crime boss who made millions selling drugs on the streets of New York. Successful in minimizing the power of Italian distributors who controlled Harlem by eliminating the middleman and buying heroin directly from a Southeast Asian source, Lucas’ operation was, in the words of Sterling Johnson, a narcotics prosecutor in New York, “one of the most outrageous international dope-smuggling gangs ever.” 

Frank began his career as the associate of Ellsworth “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), one of the leading figures in organized crime in the early 20th century and an enforcer who protected the Harlem interests of the Italian Mafia. As the film opens, Bumpy and Lucas enter a discount appliance store where Bumpy tells Frank of his dismay at the disappearance in America of “pride of ownership”, “personal service”, and the loss of the middle man in the sales process. After Bumpy’s sudden death, Lucas attempts to build his own operation and undercut the Mafia’s monopoly on the drug business by going directly to the source.  

Traveling to Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, Lucas concludes an exclusive arrangement to obtain 100 percent pure heroin which he sells on the streets as “Blue Magic”, only 10 percent pure. Lucas operates under the radar, smuggling the dope into the States on military planes and bringing family members such as Huey Lucas (Chiwetel Ejiofor) from North Carolina to set up storefront businesses scattered throughout the New York/New Jersey area that serve as distribution centers. A determined enforcer, he is also seen as a suave businessman making arrangements with Mafia bosses and confronting his rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.,) about infringement of his trademark use of the name Blue Magic.  

In a superb performance as the opportunistic crime lord, Washington projects a low-profile surface veneer of sophistication that covers up an explosive brutality. He refuses to dress ostentatiously, goes to church every Sunday with his mother (Ruby Dee) and is generous to his Puerto Rican wife Eva (Lymari Nadal) but will turn on a family member instantly if his security is jeopardized in any way. Lucas has no problem dealing with New York’s anti-drug Special Investigations Unit, paying off the majority of its members, in particular Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin). What he doesn’t count on, however, is an honest cop like detective Richie Roberts played by the outstanding Russell Crowe. Roberts, whose personal life borders on chaos, has become an outcast in his own department after turning in a million dollars in cash that he found in the trunk of a car because it was “the right thing to do”. 

The relationship between Roberts and Lucas is the highlight of the film and their face to face “negotiation” near the end of the film is reminiscent of the meeting between De Niro and Pacino in Michael Mann’s Heat. American Gangster is solid entertainment that is primarily a character study of two men on opposite sides who are determined to put their lives together, one to the benefit of society, the other to its detriment. The strongest aspect of the film, however, is its courage in exposing the web of corruption that existed in the police force at the time. In one scene, Roberts tells his fellow officers about how hard it is for him to gain cooperation from federal agencies. “I don’t think they want this to stop”, he says. “Judges, lawyers, cops, politicians, they stop bringing dope into this country, about a hundred thousand people are gonna be out of a job.” In a trenchant commentary on the values in society, by 1977, 52 out of 70 officers who worked in the Special Investigations Unit were either in jail or under indictment.”


Howard Schumann
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