American Gangster is a film about Frank Lucas, the heroin kingpin of Harlem in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It is a story of the American dream under capitalism.
As Lucas (played by Denzel Washington in the new film) says, “This is my home. My country. Frank Lucas don’t run from nobody. This is America.”
The real Frank Lucas rose from rags to riches and became one of the richest and most powerful men in New York in the 1970s.
He built his fortune on the crumpled $10 bills from the pockets of the poorest of Harlem’s poor.
At the height of his reign during the Vietnam War, Lucas was raking in over a million dollars a day on the streets of New York City.
Some saw Lucas as the “Robin Hood” of Harlem making his fortune in a society that shunned black people.
But he amassed his millions by feeding the flames of addiction, poverty, and exploitation that were consuming large sections of the black community.
While thousands of people were being killed in Vietnam – and black and white students and workers were uniting to build the largest and most powerful movement in US history – Lucas was funnelling high potency, low priced heroin into Harlem.
Lucas was an entrepreneur and a corporate innovator. He cut out the middleman by buying his heroin directly from poppy growers in Southeast Asia and getting US soldiers to smuggle it back in the coffins of dead soldiers.
Rolling Stone’s film critic Peter Travers is quite clear: “No wonder Frank believes in America. The corporate lifestyle of lie-cheat-steal-kill works for him.The movie goes to the heart of America’s obsession with success as a killer instinct.”
Gangsters have been a topic of real fascination in the US (and beyond) for many decades. Audiences never seem to tire of the subject.
The rugged individualism and entrepreneurial spirit of gangsters reinforce the ideals of capitalism and resonate with the ruling ideas that dominate most popular culture.
Gangsters are brutally shrewd individuals (almost exclusively men) driven by greed and a lust for power. They represent cutthroat competitiveness and display a total disregard for the impact of their actions on the world beyond their immediate family.
The obsession with gangsters, shown with the success of the popular Sopranos TV show, seem to confirm this worship of the outlaw.
It is this same drive, determination and entrepreneurial spirit that is so revered in the corporate world. Yet for those without the high flown education and career contacts the get rich quick ethos of the outlaw holds a special fascination.
The gangster film becomes an analogy for ruthless capitalism stripped bare blurring the distinction between the law and the law breaker.
Of course those responsible for the greatest crimes of death and destruction in 1960s and 1970s America were not Lucas and his peers – they were presidents Lyndon Johnson, and Richard Nixon.
American Gangster shows how directly Lucas’s success relies upon these big-time crooks.
The occupation of Vietnam gave him his winning business strategy – and he panics when he realises that the US are going to have to withdraw from Vietnam.
He pulls out all the stops to get a final huge shipment of heroin out of the country in the last body bags.
It is hard not to think of the poppy fields of present day Afghanistan.
Lucas’ story is a story of the American dream. But despite all his efforts and success, it ultimately can’t deliver for him – he remains a poor black man doing his best to use the system to his advantage but being forced to operate outside of it.
He was eventually arrested and sentenced to 70 years in jail, but cut a deal with the authorities and was released a few years later.
In his historic 1964 speech, The Ballot Or The Bullet, the radical black leader Malcolm X said, “We don’t see any American dream – we’ve experienced only the American nightmare.”
It is this nightmare of failure and poverty that Lucas used to make his fortune, and that makes him such a despicable character.
Most of the characters in gangster films eventually come to a sticky end – a fitting analogy for the real-time corporate crooks?
Lets hope so.