There are a number of films this year being touted as Hollywood's reaction to the war and political crisis in Iraq and here at home. Most notable among these perhaps are Lions for Lambs, Rendition, and Charlie Wilson's War. The films critics and commentators probably will not and as of yet have not included on this list is Ridley Scott's American Gangster. Starring Denzel Washington, American Gangster is the story of Frank Lucas, heir apparent to Harlem organized crime leader Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson. Lucas would establish a heroin distribution network that outstripped any existing in the U.S. at the time, baffling New York police, federal narcotics enforcement, and competing organized crime operations.
It is not the story of Frank Lucas himself however, but its backdrop that warrants American Gangster's inclusion in, and placement at the top of the aforementioned list. It is the America of Vietnam and Nixon. An America still reeling in the wake of the civil rights struggle and the upheaval of national Jim Crow and international Jim Crow in the form of colonial rule. It was also an America led by an individual who by accounts of close advisors as well as his own audio recordings was perhaps the most powerful, drug/drink-addled paranoiac of the modern age. A man whose attempted heist of the U.S. presidency would precipitate his downfall. America was a gangster on foreign shores being led by no less than a gangster.
Through Lucas' story, we are reminded of Major General Smedley D. Butler, USMC, who wrote I was a racketeer. A gangster for capitalism. We are haunted by the warnings of former President and General Dwight D. Eisenhower who stated in his farewell address we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. Lucas' ascendancy to dominance of the Eastern U.S. heroin trade was facilitated by the U.S. military presence in southeast Asia during the Vietnam Conflict. In that way, legitimized gangsterism opened the path to more nefarious gangsterism. Exchange Abu Ghraib for Harlem housing projects, water-boarding for no knock warrant, BlackWater for Special Investigation Unit, War on Terror for War on Crime. Where war-making ends do war crimes begin, or is war-making itself the war crime?
The irony of Frank Lucas' story lies in its conclusion. The heroic efforts and character of Richie Roberts, New Jersey Detective and co-prosecuter in Lucas' case, ultimately brought Lucas to justice. Despite the years they spent as adversaries the two found more in common with each other than their respective peers. They bonded, and together uncovered and brought down one of the nations biggest police corruption scandals. Strangely enough, Robert's first case as a defense attorney would be that of Frank Lucas, defending Lucas against the very crimes for which he'd originally prosecuted him.
I hearken back to the whistle-blowers of the late 90's and early 00's. Their own steadfast integrity, crises of conscience, or both, coupled with herculean struggle called to account some of our country's most powerful organizations including Enron, WorldCom, big tobacco (ironically featured in another Russel Crowe film, The Insider), and the FBI. It is a parallel I can only hope and pray continues into our present day as another gangster presidential administration winds to its own conclusion. If only that means we too will conclude our collective chapter as American Gangsters. That the Lucases and a Roberts, or other Insiders within us will come to the fore. Maybe then can we finally enter our own second act and call to account the gangsters whom we as a nation - in politics, business, military, religion and other global affairs - have ourselves supported and/or created.