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American Gangster : The Crime You Need When the Mob is Not Enough

American Gangster illuminates in its failure. Earnest and workmanlike in its effort to earn a place among the venerated films in its genre, it does not succeed. A better than average film in terms of the average film—a “B” perhaps; three out of four stars—it is neither of the first two Godfather movies, nor is it the most recent Scarface, nor is it Goodfellas, nor is it any number of other “classic” manifestations of the pathology known as the American gangster film.

American Gangster—its poster and its original-soundtrack cover evocative of De Palma and Pacino’s Scarface,[1] its melodic trumpet line in the original score’s “Frank Lucas” theme overtly referencing Nino Rota’s theme for the Godfather—self-consciously sets about positioning itself as another gangster epic in the grand tradition of gangster epics. But the wheels come off well before the deed is done, and we and it are left wondering what has happened.

Like a new sports stadium that has been sedulously built, with an abundance of cash and the distilled thoughts of focus-group participants, to resemble an old sports stadium, there is a disquieting soullessness to American Gangster. As we watch the film connect its dots, we wonder what it is trying to convince us of. It is not incumbent upon a film to convince an audience of anything, but we cannot help but feel that this movie is trying to convince us of something. But what? The answer comes to us eventually: American Gangster is trying to convince us that it is a great American gangster film.

There are a number of plot points in American Gangster worth mentioning. Denzel Washington plays a black gangster (Frank Lucas) who runs Harlem’s early 1970s drug trade by cutting out the middle men and getting his supply straight from the source in Southeast Asia; the supply is brought to America in the coffins of American soldiers killed in Vietnam; Frank Lucas’ particular brand of heroin, “Blue Magic,” is “twice as good for half as much” as his competitors’; Lucas’ business, operated by his family, whom he has brought up from North Carolina for just that purpose, is “above the mob,” though he eventually has to make peace with the mob by cutting them in on some of his business; Russell Crowe plays an honest cop (Richie Roberts) in a sea of law-enforcement corruption (the most corrupt cop being the slick Trupo, played by Josh Brolin) who eventually brings Frank Lucas down.

There are interesting elements here that, when abstracted, seem to offer some promise: the title itself, which bends over backwards to suggest that there is something above-all “American” in Lucas’ story; a “good” (i.e., both highly profitable and of a high quality) product that kills people and further devastates already destitute neighborhoods; a member of a historically disadvantaged ethnic group rising to the top of the crime world by poisoning other members of his ethnic group; dead American soldiers playing an important role in advancing a profitable enterprise; the relationship between crime and law enforcement; the true nature of “business” in America.

But in American Gangster none of these themes is meaningfully investigated. The promise that is offered by their introduction is never fulfilled. In this, at least, it is a worthy heir to its predecessors.

The most frequent explanations for the success of the American gangster film are that it is (a) wish fulfillment for an audience existing under American capitalism; (b) a critique of that same American capitalism.

In fact, it is more the former than the latter, and to the extent that it can be said to be the latter, it is precisely the opposite of what its apologists (chief among them, its directors and its garland-tossing critics) claim it is: far from being a critique of American capitalism, it is a celebration of American capitalism.

The American gangster movie is both wish fulfillment—who, in his day-to-day life, would not like to be unfettered from the ruthless logic of “legal” American capitalism?—and a celebration of the very system it purports to critique. Added to this mix are violence and the eventual downfall of the criminal. The violence is for your entertainment, of course, but so too is the downfall—it is schadenfreude; you may not be bold enough to risk so much, but look what happens to those who do. In one sense, the American gangster film is a form of capitalist pornography. As wish fulfillment within a system combines with a distorted celebration of that same system, the gangster-porn star lives out the audience’s fantasies, and the admiring audience’s jealousy has its revenge when the gangster is punished.

On the surface, what distinguishes American Gangster from, say, the Godfather films, or Goodfellas, or any number of mob movies, is the independence of the protagonist. He is not part of a syndicate, to which he must answer; he is his own man. “Nobody owns me,” he tells us. But really, this isn’t an innovation. Nor is the ethnicity of the gangster hero particularly novel. That he is black is worth noting, and director Ridley Scott gives some half-awake nods to how Lucas might represent “progress” (although he does nothing with the obvious ironies inhering in this sort of progress), but the rise of a member of a marginalized ethnic group to a position of gangster independence was already clearly charted in De Palma’s Scarface, to take only one of the most obvious examples.

The independent gangster is therefore itself a venerated variation offered gangster-film audiences (and it extends at least as far back as Howard Hughes’ and Howard Hawks’ original Scarface ). The independent business-gangster goes beyond the rules of the syndicate; the syndicate makes its own rules, and privileges its own members, but the independent gangster makes his own rules, privileging only himself. That this independence is fleeting within the conventions of the rise and fall narrative is beside the point. The appeal to gangster-film audiences is obvious. His is the egomaniacal crime you need when the mob is not enough.

Andre Breton, in a piece formulating surrealism’s raison d’etre, once wrote:

…our self-allotted task…consists in elaborating a collective myth appropriate to our period in the same way that, whether we like it or not, the gothic genre must be regarded as symptomatic of the great social upheaval that shook Europe at the end of the eighteenth century. [2]

The American gangster film is itself symptomatic of life under American capitalism. The dynamic insecurity that American capitalism produces has a certain excitement about it; but, over the long haul, this excitement really only remains invigorating for the winners, and it is precisely the winners who are most insulated from any real pain that instability produces. [3] The gangster film—with its celebration of extravagant wealth, life outside the law, violence, amoral entrepreneurism, unfettered capitalism writ large, and stock morality in its ninety-nine-cent-store “tragedies”—is a tonic, but a paradoxical one. It is a way to escape by enmeshing yourself further into the very logic that ails you.

We began this review by noting that American Gangster failed to make itself into a “classic” of the genre. Pauline Kael once said, “movies are a popular art form, and they can mean a great deal to us at the time—mean something new—but they get stale very quickly, as what they do is imitated.” [4] The problem with American Gangster is not that it is an imitation (a work in any genre—in any art form—is generally at least a sort of imitation), but that it is a stale imitation; that is its failure—but with further investigation, we find that the genre itself is a sort of failure.

Consider these words of Martin Esslin, writing about drama in the settings of film, television, and theater: “Drama provides some of the principal role models by which individuals form their identity and ideals, sets patterns of communal behavior, forms values and aspirations and has become part of the collective fantasy life of the masses.” [5]

If reports of real-life gangsters’ love and emulation of gangster movies are to be believed, Esslin’s words not only ring true, but take on a certain comic element. The same is true when one considers two anecdotal reports from an editor at The Straddler: the editor was once at the home of a highly successful Italian-American owner of a real-estate company. When it was time to sit down for dinner, the first tune played for the guests on the stereo system was Rota’s “The Godfather Waltz.” On another occasion, this same editor was in the basement recreation room of a successful Jewish accountant. On the walls of the recreation room, close, but not too close, to the television, was a chiaroscuro painting which depicted, on the left side, all of the major characters from The Godfather trilogy, and on the right side, all of the major characters from The Sopranos.

To be playfully dubbed a “gangster” in American society is a term of admiration and respect. If your father knocks ten bucks off of the price of a fifty-dollar Christmas tree, you might compliment him for having “gotten gangster” during the haggling process. The “gangster,” like the real gangster, gets respect. But the outsized respect the “gangster” commands is only momentary because he is, in the end, just one of us. He is not actually a gangster.   It’s kind of a joke.   For hip-hop culture, it is a little bit more complicated than that. It is a pose that sometimes has its roots in actual criminal activity. The rapper Jay-Z was so moved by American Gangster that he made a successful album (entitled, of course, American Gangster ) inspired by the film. Before Jay-Z got into the “rap game,” he was a player in the “dope game.” Crack dealing far behind him now, his unparalleled success in hip-hop has allowed him to enter into so many business enterprises that he is presently, according to his own accounts, “moguling.” (Say what you will about Jay-Z’s occasionally jejune lyrics; his is one dope flow.) There are also hip-hop figures with names like Scarface and Irv Gotti and Yo Gotti (these latter two names perhaps the more problematic, as they are borrowed from the name of a real-life gangster).

And yet, are all of these identifications—from well-off white businessmen to African-American hip-hop figures to your law-abiding father who dutifully goes to work at a “legit” business everyday—manifestations of anything more than a broad recognition that, under American capitalism, “the lethal pursuit of the American dream,” as Manohla Dargis wrote in her sober New York Times review of American Gangster, “is not restricted to one or two families—the Corleones, say, or the Sopranos—but located in a network of warring tribes that help to obscure the larger war of all against all”? [6]

What is the context in which the gangster film places life under American capitalism? Rather than being profound, liberating, and enriching, the gangster film diminishes and cheapens the lives of its audience.

The system is unfair and often unjust, and the desire to con it extends broadly across American society—not least because the system, as it is set up, and as it functions, is itself a con. The deck is stacked against you and you resent it. It is only natural to want to con the con. But the principles underlying the scam the gangster uses against the larger scam end up being an ethos that is just as traditional and becomes just as hallowed as the one against which he was working in the first place. Consider Frank Lucas’ words in American Gangster: “The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work, family… .” The gangster is not a rebel. He is the outsider as conformist. His acquisitive values are no different than those of the society in which he operates, even though he uses more (obviously) dubious means to pursue his ends. He wants his piece of the pie. As Gore Vidal once said, “in a sanctimonious society of hustlers, which is what the United States has been from the very beginning…the first law is, ‘I won’t blow your scam and you don’t blow mine.” [7]

There is certainly nothing wrong with watching gangster films. While it is often tedious to endure directors indulging their (and their audience’s) penchant for violence, or, what may be worse, taking breaks from their films in order to heavy-handedly essay connections between crime, criminal figures, and “this America,” [8] it’s sometimes fun to be on the edge of our seats wondering if Michael Corleone can find the gun behind the toilet (and that mobster and that corrupt cop had it coming anyway, didn’t they? Even if what they were trying to do was “just business.”); or watching Ray Liotta’s character in Goodfellas get a prime table in a crowded club and having his new girlfriend breathlessly ask him, “what do you do ?”; or watching Joe Pesci do his clown routine in the same movie. It’s the lessons we deliberately or inadvertently take away from these films that are problematic. It is the way these very popular films “provide[] some of the principal role models by which individuals form their identity and ideals, set[] patterns of communal behavior, form[] values and aspirations and…become part of the collective fantasy life of the masses.”

The gangster film functions as its own form of Blue Magic, and because of the conditions under which we live, we can’t necessarily fault ourselves for wanting a dose. But it’s the easy way out…because by injecting ourselves in order to get out for a little while, all we really do is ensure that we remain even further in.

American Gangster‘s failure as a gangster film, then, is perhaps its greatest success.


[1] Interestingly, the cover of the American Gangster DVD did not use the image from its theatrical release poster, perhaps tacitly acknowledging that its original errand had failed.

[2] Breton, Andre. “Nonnational Borders of Surrealism.” Free Rein.   Trs. Michael Parmentier and Jacqueline D’Amboise. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1995. 14-15. [First emphasis in original; second emphasis ours]
[3] American capitalism, incidentally, does not only produce winners and losers. There is also an all-too-familiar third category: survivors.

[4] Quoted in Davis, Francis. Afterglow: A Last Conversation with Pauline Kael. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2002. 73.

[5] Gussow, Mel. “Martin Esslin, Drama Theorist, Dies at 83.” The New York Times. Jul. 5 2002: A25. 23 Mar. 2008.

[6] Dargis, Manhola. “Sweet, Bloody Smell of Success.” The New York Times. Nov. 2 2007: E1. 23 Mar. 2008.

[7] “The Education of Gore Vidal.” American Masters. PBS, 2003.

[8] Hawks’ mayhem-riddled Scarface provides a particularly hysterical example of this. Responding to pressure from censorship boards seeing in Scarface a “glorification” of the gangster, the 1932 movie begins with three defensive title cards that together read:

“This picture is an indictment of gang rule in America and of the callous indifference of the government to this constantly increasing menace to our safety and our liberty. Every incident in this picture is the reproduction of an actual occurrence, and the purpose of this picture is to demand of the government: ‘What are you going to do about it?’ The government is your government. What are YOU going to do about it?”

In the “dry,” economically-depressed America of 1932, one imagines a reasonable answer might have been, “I’m going to sneak another drink and watch another gangster movie.”

There is also a bizarre moment about two-thirds of the way into film in which the newspaper publisher, Mr. Garston, meets with concerned citizens (obvious stand-ins for the censorship boards) who are opposed to the attention his paper gives to gangsters. In an unintentionally comic scene which reads like an unwitting bastardization of a Brechtian Lehrstück, Garston, qua the film’s defense attorney, delivers a lecture (during which he more than once looks straight into the camera) moralistically admonishing the citizens to get off of the paper’s back and “instead of trying to hide the facts, get busy trying to see that laws are passed that will do some good. Pass a federal law that puts the gun in the same class as drugs and white slavery. Put teeth in the Deportation Act. These gangsters don’t belong in this country. Half of them aren’t even citizens.” The scene is lazily shot, pasted in, and is preceded and succeeded by, respectively, a gangland massacre and an assassination of a rival gang leader, both carefully and effectively photographed. The point is not that Hughes and Hawks compromised the artistic integrity of their movie in order to appease the censors, but the line of defense they chose.

All of this makes the following bit of dialogue from The Godfather seem subtle by comparison:


I’m working for my father now, Kay. He’s been sick—very sick.


But you’re not like him, Michael. I thought you weren’t going to become a man like your father. That’s what you told me…


My father’s no different than any other powerful man. Any man who’s responsible for other people. Like a senator or a president.


You know how naive you sound?




Senators and presidents don’t have men killed…


Oh—who’s being naive, Kay?

But, of course, it is anything but subtle. It’s as tedious as it is prosciutto-handed. (If Francis Ford Coppola ever had any real intention of offering a critique of America’s economic and political workings, he must have relished the irony of the real-life super-gangster Henry Kissinger’s presence at the The Godfather ‘s premiere. But the joke, in the end, was actually on Coppola.)

Scarface. Dir. Howard Hawks. Perf. Paul Muni, Anne Dvorak, Karen Morley. 1932. DVD. Universal, 2007.

The Godfather. Dir. Francis Ford Coppola. Perf. Marlon Brando, Al Pacino, James Caan. 1972. DVD. Paramount, 2004.

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