Monday, November 5, 2007

Movies: American Gangster

This is a brilliant movie, but I feel like it manages to be brilliant in spite of Denzel Washington, rather than because of Denzel Washington. In his contemporary well-tailored suits, with his quiet intellect and spectacular diction, as drug kingpin Frank Lucas, Denzel gives the impression of Barack Obama walking onto the set of Super Fly. It's more than somewhat idiosyncratic.

And yet, Ridley Scott's film is otherwise so well-crafted that we know this idiosyncrasy must be intentional. Each supporting role is played to the nines. Russell Crowe, whom I rarely appreciate, takes cues from Gene Hackman's Popeye in The French Connection as Lucas' foil, Richie Roberts: a committed cop whose life (and body) are otherwise falling apart. The climax—the big bust in the cutting room—is one of the best shoot-outs I've ever seen, with bullets whizzing through sprays of white powder, showering the black bodies of the bare-breasted women who measure and bag the drug, as they scream and squeal and run to cower under the table for safety.

Aside from being supremely entertained (though the film is way over two hours, not once did I wonder what time it was, or even yawn, despite the fact that all the shows had sold out, forcing me to watch one starting at 1:30 AM), we get two good thinking points from this movie. The first comes from a conversation in which Lucas muses on whether the government is actually serious about shutting down the drug trade, because it employs so many people: lawyers, judges, police, prison guards, etc., aside from the dealers, importers, etc. The nasty but real portrait of crooked cops' symbiotic relationship with the pre-Lucas dealers (he refuses to play along, and that's ultimately why he has trouble) is pretty rattling.

Even more rattling, though, is to see Lucas, a man of Harlem who claims to care about Harlem— about his family, about his people—make wealth by the suffering of his own. Watching New Jack City (a better drug kingpin movie, I think), one wonders the same thing: how could anyone give another person crack cocaine, knowing full well it would destroy that person entirely. It's difficult to imagine how Lucas, a man of such integrity, could comfortably live off of the heroin habits in his neighborhood. In a conversation with Roberts, he speaks from an all-business perspective, explaining that junkies create a market for their product, so that even if he goes behind bars, another dealer will step into the supplier vacuum. He seems to suggest that its inevitable that the market for heroin will exist. I suppose since drug use is still prevalent, he was right. And yet, it doesn't cease to disappoint me that dealers aren't more mindful of the cycle of pain and destruction they feed. Even if it's a luxury for me to be able to say so.

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