Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan

American Gangster


I guess my main complaint about this is stylistic. How dark and murky can a movie get before you don’t have any idea what’s going on? Many directors have been exploring this question in recent years, and here Ridley Scott, who’s always been dark, almost achieves nirvana in some scenes: a completely black screen. In every indoor scene where it is possible, he shoots into the light. People are framed against picture windows, with all the interior light behind them, walking into buildings with the open doors behind them … like that. Every scene! Outside, New York is almost as dark as the Los Angeles of Blade Runner, or the London of Sweeney Todd. Not quite, but almost. The movie might as well be in black and white. And since so many of the characters are dark-skinned people, their features are almost impossible to see in these situations. You’re going to say this is 21st Century film noir, but if it is, you can fucking have it. Those old noir directors of the ‘40s and ‘50s shot dark, sure, but they knew how to place the lights so you saw what you needed to see, what they wanted you to see, and left the backgrounds shadowy. Here, the backgrounds are visible and the characters are in the dark, almost all the time. It really sucks, my friends. They might as well make a movie in Braille.
Now that that’s out of the way, what about the content, as opposed to the presentation? Well, it’s very well-written and well-acted, and the story is good, and all in all I’d have to say it’s a good movie. I’m glad I saw it. But as I watched, I kept thinking, “What’s the point?” Do we really need to see this story again? If you’ve seen The French Connection, and maybe 100 cops vs. dope dealers movies since then, this movie could not possibly have anything new to say to you. TFC is even referenced specifically, several times, and there is a scene that is a direct steal. Remember Frog One dining in a fine restaurant, and through the window Popeye Doyle is freezing his butt off, sipping awful coffee? Here, the big dope dealer, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), sits down to a lavish Thanksgiving dinner with his loving family, while Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) chows down on a pressed turkey sandwich. Yeah, I get it, the doper is rolling in dough, and the honest cop is almost eligible for welfare. And the crooked cop drives a Shelby Mustang. And yeah, at the end we learn that 75% of the NYC drug detail was indicted for various crimes in the early ‘70s, and it’s plain that the other 25% just got lucky. Seventy-five percent! And are you surprised? And do you think anything is any different today? As Frank Lucas says in the movie, the NYPD lived for years on that French Connection dope, swiping a bit here and a bit there, selling it back on the streets. And the day after they shut down that operation, do you think heroin was any harder to get on the streets? And the day after this operation was shut down …
Are we ever going to get it? One definition of insanity is to keep doing the same thing again and again and expect different results. That describes our long-running, eternal, and totally hopeless War on Drugs perfectly. Why not declare war on water, or oxygen? It’s just as likely to get results. And I’ll guarantee you this, there would be water and oxygen gangs and cartels, getting filthy rich and paying off cops, corrupting the system, killing each other, selling adulterated water and watered-down oxygen cut with radon. We would be passing laws that violate our civil liberties, confiscating the property of anyone caught in possession of oxygen (or ozone, O3, a “precursor” of oxygen), handing down lower penalties for deuterium oxide (heavy water), the preferred drug of rich folks, and heavier sentences for possession of regular water, which only black people use because it’s cheaper.
Drugs are not the scourge! The war on drugs is the scourge!