American Gangster

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This weekend I watched American Gangster, the new Denzel Washington film about the life of former heroin king Frank Lucas. Russell Crowe is in the film as well, playing a cop who finally is able to discover the extent of Lucas’ operations and bring him (and many others) to justice.

The film itself was good, although at times it was trying to be more than it was (an epic it is not), and while introducing a score of characters whose lives were effected by Lucas, the movie really addresses them in a haphazard way throughout. The movie also should have ended earlier than it did, but oh well. Denzel does a great job as usually with the role, and much like George Jung’sBlow, we as an audience are given a interesting rise and fall of a drug dealer story.

What was most interesting to me was how Frank Lucas was portrayed in the movie. In many ways, he was a businessman on the wrong side of the law, but the film quickly establishes the law was on the wrong side of drugs as well, as he not only paid off cops, but some essentially extorted money form him as well. When he is ultimately captured, he is able to provide information to capture those that assisted him – leaving us with the impression he was a innovative man under dire conditions who did well for himself because he had to.

In reality, Frank Lucas was a violent man, who only identified since childhood with such a way of life. At the age of 12 he mugged men as they left brothels, and only left for NYC when he fooled around with a farmer’s daughter, laid him out with a piece of wood when discovered, then burned his house down. Another stark reality the movie glosses over was the effect of heroin on the Harlem community, although I am ready to admit that in his absence others merely would have thrived instead. But the drugs are one thing, the lifestyle is another. The movie points out that his cousin does not want to try out for the Yankees because he wants Frank’s lifestyle instead – many talented athletes became victim of heroin (see the Goat) or the image of success the dealers gave off.

Also, Frank never gave up his Army sources who helped him smuggles the drugs, which was convenient because that would have been a scandal that the government would not wanted to have dealt with. But maybe they never asked, knowing how extensive the operation may have been.

I tried to do a bit more research into Frank Lucas, and came up with some interesting reads. There is some interesting discussion on the film at Truth and Opinion, including some contributions by those who knew Frank Lucas.

Here are some excerpts:

Frank Lucas never used his gun like that and he never had a real crew like that. He was a country boy who was in Harlem. Yes, he had money but so did every other hustler during that time. But he wasn’t gangster like that and if he was he wouldn’t have been alive because no new york cat that was down during that time would’ve let that country boy come off gangster like that. All Frank was into was women and money and he abused them both. In every way! Just like any other stereotypical drug dealer. Please do not use the term innovative when you talk about Frank Lucas. He didn’t innovate anything. Just another common criminal who was a millionare amongst many doing the same thing back in those days. There were several millionaires on every block in halrem during those times. I am a brother and it hurts me to say this, but the real hustlers in harlem during those days were the Mafia. They are the ones who got rich. And Frank Lucas wasn’t even close, not even amongst the brothers.
Posted by: Banger on October 26th, 2007 at 9:18 pm

American Gangster” will draw a bigger box office in one day than Malcolm X did during its whole run. why? Because America prefers and is very comfortable seeing Black Folk in the role of drug dealer, pimp, hustler, ho, etc. And that my friends is the secret of the success of Gangster rap as well.
What is going on here? How have we allowed ourselves to be bamboozled like this? Frank Lucas is not an American Entreprenuer. He was just a drug dealer plain and simple who had enough darkness in is heart and enough disregard for the sanctity of life to assist in the conspiracy to destroy a community.

Posted by: Rashaan on October 28th, 2007 at 12:00 pm

I’ve read every single blog about FRANK LUCAS posted here. I personally knew Frank Lucas as well as Nicky Barnes and quite a few others. I, myself just got out of prison in 1998 because of the Frank Lucas incident.
Frank was indeed a true innovator! He was the first to go directly to the ’source’ of the herion(Bangkok and Saigon) and brought the drugs back in the coffins of our dead soldiers. He also “sold” to the mafia….instead of them selling to him. Frank would sell to the mafia families at 33% cheaper thatn they could get the drugs. The mafia resented him for this, but after over 15 attempts on Franks life, they relented, because Frank indeed had a army of over 600 gun toting men who were willing to kill on a whim for Frank (He paid extremely well). They would bomb, shoot and kill anyone and everyone including the Italian mobsters, the Irish mobsters, the Dutch mobsters as well as other black mobsters and kingpins.Frank was not bigger than the mafia, but was richer than any and I do mean…any mafia DON at that time. When money was stolen by police from Franks house…it was later determined that over 80 million dollars was taken…just from his house. Frank has killed…over 40 people that I know of from his own hands, but I doubt if he would ever admit to killing anyone. All of us know that no matter how long ago a murder happened, tht we can be tried for it. There is no ’stature of limitations’ on murder/homicide. I know tht at one time I was making $50,000. a week just for working for Frank and another guy was making over $100,000. who was working with me.It may not seem like a lot of money now…but in 1973, $50,000. a week made me feel rich. Remember..a loaf of bread was only 20 cents. Frank …even tho he told on the police…he is considered a snitch still. The code is to keep your mouth shut…period. He should have killed the police instead of snitching on them. He is very much alive…Frank is about 73 to 77 years old now. I haven’t talked with him directly, because I’m angry about his snitching and the killing of a friend way back then (I’m not forgiving)
Posted by: REAL DEAL on October 31st, 2007 at 4:56 pm

One thing I’m disappointed about is, they don’t talk about his relationship with Billie Mays (Willie Mays daughter). She was the most sought after woman in that time. He apparently stole her away from Walt “Clyde” Frazier. I’ve tried to find pictures of her but can’t seem to locate any. If anyone does please post the link.
Posted by: D-Nice on November 1st, 2007 at 12:55 pm

UPDATE: Here is another look at separating fact from fiction.

The film itself is based on an article written in New York Magazine several years ago…it’s definitely worth the read. (BTW, I love the fact how he remarks he hates ‘ghetto culture’ nowadays such as the Wu-Tang Clan, yet a member of the group is an actor in the movie).

Here is a more recent interview, where Frank and Nicky Barnes sit down for the first time since his arrest.

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