The inspiration for Ridley Scott’s American Gangster (2007) died on May 30 at the age of 88. Was drug lord Frank Lucas, brilliantly portrayed by Denzel Washington in Scott’s baggy biopic, an unlikely anti-hero of his times who, in his own way, addressed deep-seated racism and anxiety over the rise of black men in the United States? Or was he, as newspaper reports and biographers suggested, a deeply harmful self-mythologist who embellished his rise through the ranks and underplayed his villainy?
The biopic, which flies under the “fiction inspired by reality” flag, treats Frank Lucas as a man who is shaped by his circumstances and always aware of his blackness. American Gangster, which is being streamed in India on Netflix, pivots on a sharp script by Steven Zaillian. The movie deifies its subject as much as the average Italian mafia saga, and smuggles in topical commentary about race, power and American-style entrepreneurship in between scenes of Lucas striding to his latest victory.
Race is both an overt and unspoken factor in the scenes of Lucas taking charge of his gang after the death of his mentor, the ingenuous ways in which he smuggles heroin into the US, and his runs-in with the Mafia. The moment when Lucas walks onto the lawn of the kind of mansion where his ancestors might have served as maids and drivers, and the consternation on the faces of his new (and white) neighbours, tell us what we need to know about how American Gangster contextualises Lucas’s rise.
A Mafia don who pressurises Lucas to go into business with him can barely disguise his contempt. Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) patronisingly tells Lucas that he is a “Renaissance Man”, the “enlightened” type, unlike other Italian drug dealers. “You talk to them about civil rights, they don’t know,” Cattano says.
Mohammed Ali is floating and stinging his way to the top on television as two sets of police officers deal with Lucas. One is the grubby-handed kind, led by Nick Trupo (Josh Brolin), who squeezes Lucas ever so often for payouts. The other is Richie Roberts, equally wonderfully played by Russell Crowe. Richie is an incorruptible police officer whose real motive in bringing down Lucas is to put corrupt police officers into prison.
The two men finally meet in the extended climax, after Richie has acquired proof against Lucas. The flash and momentum of previous scenes come to a halt in what is a two-hander between two great actors. Lucas and Richie have a classic two-shot conversation during which Lucas scoffs at Richie, threatens him and finally realises what Richie is driving at.
A series of coffee cups is the third cast member in the room. Richie keeps serving Frank coffee, which either gets drunk or flung aside. The coffee cup becomes a negotiating tool for the larger question of what is at stake for Frank Lucas: “Black businessman like you? You represent progress.”
When Lucas gets Richie’s drift, he pushes a coffee cup in Richie’s direction – a sign that he will co-operate in bringing down the bigger villain, which is the corrupt and racist law enforcement system.
“I ain’t seen normal since I was six years old,” Lucas tells Richie. “Normal is seeing the police ride up to my house, dragging my little 12-year-old cousin out and tying him to a pole, shoving a shotgun in his mouth so hard they bust his teeth. Then they bust two shotgun shells in his head, and knock his fucking’ head off.”
A pale imitation of the coffee cup exchange features in Pushkar-Gayathri’s Vikram Vedha (2017), in the interrogation scene involving the characters played by Madhavan and Vijay Sethupathi. The cup is pushed back and forth in Vikram Vedha, but it does not quite have the same loaded quality or the layer of social commentary as its predecessor in American Gangster.