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An American Gangster – sentimentalising gangsters, fetishising guns

the gang's all here

the gang's all here

American Gangster – Ridley Scott

Sentimentalising gangsters and fetishising guns are twin cancers at the heart of American culture. Each feeds off the other to create a moral landscape that can be obscenely equivocal and cumulatively corrupting. I have been corrupted enough over the years to enjoy the tension and excitement of conflict in these action movies. But my brain won’t entirely submit.

Denzel Washington’s choice of project for many years now, in my view, demonstrates an equally disturbing phenomenon: he has created a series of black ‘heroes’ sharing a toxic mixture of qualities: contemptuously misogynistic; sleek, slick, Hollywood cool super-black. The archetype of these characters was Alonzo Harris in Training Day. It is to the eternal shame of the Academy that they awarded an Oscar for that flash portrayal of a black fascist-cool police officer. Especially when that performance was as mannered as a rap star while Ethan Hawke played him off the screen.

There are pretty much no unequivocally bad black characters in Washington films any more – most of the bad guys are white and racist, while non-white bad guys are always the way they are because of the appalling racism to which they have been subjected. It is to me a tragedy that this talented, articulate, charismatic actor appears to have decided to promote a picture of what it is to be black in America that sentimentalises racial victimhood. It is not perhaps for me as a white man to be outraged by this: but with black candidates for President, Supreme Court judges, and brilliant black men and women participating at the highest levels in every walk of US life, such superficial glossing of a deeply important real conflict at the heart of US political and social life seems to me appalling. This kind of superficial, marketer’s ethnicity does no favours to the real endemic exclusion, persisting injustice inherent to US society – African American, Latino, and dare we say it – Native American (the invisible wronged). Discrimination against African Americans is not the only racist game in town. Washington now only ever plays black. Compare in contrast Morgan Freeman who plays characters whose enthnicity in merely a secondary fact in most of the parts he plays. It is actors like Freeman who are the dignified heirs to the example of people like Poitier and even Robeson, not sadly, Denzel Washington.

This uneasiness was reinforced some years ago when I attended a Guardian lecture at the NFT after a preview screening of Hurricane. Denzel Washington made a grandstand entrance for the interview accompanied by an entourage of equally coolly black-clad, all-black minders who took up strategic positions in the cinema. I never realised the intellectual anoraks of the NFT posed such a potent threat to life and limb.

This is relevant to American Gangster. Based on a true story, Frank Lucas, protege of a black gang boss with a Harlem power-base in the late 60’s, unobtrusively and ruthlessly takes over when his mentor dies. Using contacts in the military in Vietnam Lucas sets up a cheaply sourced high volume supply line of top grade heroin that gradually undermines the drugs ‘market’ in New York. Get dead quicker and cheaper. Yes his is a truly American tale, embedded in the American dream of win-at-all-costs capitalist entrepreneurialism. As played, Lucas is politically savvy and soon comes to an accommodation with the unhappy New York Mafia families to be their drugs wholesaler. Coining it with his own high quality retail Blue Magic brand – yes there is even a confrontation about brand integrity – Lucas generates massive revenue from wholesale supplies to the Mafia. This is the unconscionable getting into bed with the unspeakable. And Ridley Scott assembles all his undoubted filmaker’s craft to make it play like an absorbing play-for-keeps episode of the The Apprentice.

I understand the real Frank Lucas was a volatile, off-the-wall flash gangster. Washington gives him intellectual gravitas, political nous, and a Mafia-like grotesque devotion to family values. There is a scene where incredulity is expressed by a senior police officer at the very thought that a black gangster could have the intelligence and organisational skills to compete with the Mafia. This generates the unworthy thought that Washington was actually drawn to the part because it enables him to show that even in gangsterism, blacks compete. Certainly the Italian Mafia boss he deals with, Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) is portrayed in such a stereotypical way that it would have caused outrage had he been black.

Picking up a beauty queen trophy wife on the way Frank brings his extended family up to Harlem to help him run the show and his morally myopic mum lives on site so that Scott can reinforce the racist victimhood scenario without which by implication Frank might have been a player in non-criminal American life. In a gesture to a universal theme, of course Frank is eventually betrayed from within – just like the Mafia.

Into this mix comes Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). As Frank is aspiring to the American dream of self-realisation though a well-established US ‘industry’ – crime – so Richie is pursuing personal improvement through study of the law. Ridley Scott has eschewed the normal good guys vs bad guys scenario: in American Gangster, everyone is a crook, police and gangsters alike. I guess the facts are there about the Lucas case when his evidence convicted 80% of the then NYPD drugs squad of graft. But the assumption Scott pitches at is that it is only to be expected that graft is endemic in the police force. All we can hope for is that a quirky, rebellious individual like Richie, will stand up for what’s right. Sure enough Richie proves this by finding nearly $1m dollars in unmarked bills and yet still hands it in. His Latino partner Javier is so ashamed of this moral turpitude that he hits the drugs. Latino’s don’t come out so well in Washington movies either.

All of Scott’s undoubted craftsmanship is on view, The film has pace, tension and ‘entertaining’ dramatic moments. But it has little substance of thought or morality to even begin to justify the universality of the title. It panders to the possibly terminal disease of post- Kennedy, Nixon-infected US politics – deep distrust of the Constitution and the institution of government itself. The film totally lacks the moral depth and insight of The Godfather (Parts I and II before it too became a franchise). The acting is sort of OK without being striking. Crowe in particular does not use his stolid natural lack of physical grace to any noticeable benefit. And ever since A Beautiful Mind he has developed a sort of diffident shuffle and facial twitch that assumes we won’t get his character unless he sends us a visual postcard. A genuinely offensive little issue is raised by the fact that Crowe who looks about as Jewish as a ham sandwich, wears a token Star of David around his neck I swear to Jaweh for no other reason than to allow a black racist police chief to ‘even things up’ by calling him a ‘Kike’. This really sucks.

The real world facts add a credibility to An American Gangster that it totally lacks as a work of popular art. It is morally constipated and ethnically prejudiced. It seems to me a shameful distortion and distraction to suggest that the kind of black characters Denzel Washington chooses to play and promote are remotely representative of genuine poor and excluded black America struggling for equality. But we live in a climate of racial debate where it must be a black man who puts forward such an argument. And that is a tragedy in itself. For me Washington’s Hollywood super-cool black screen persona is paradoxically all American, capitalist, marketing driven. And with real sadness, it seems to me there is not a single vestige of genuine ethnic Africanism in it: African as a brand – not an ethnic reality.

I don’t especially enjoy addressing these controversial issues in a review of a popular work of art to which they are supposedly peripheral. But Denzel Washington puts them front and centre and it seems to me is squandering a talent that could be addressing the heart and soul of African American issues in favour of easy, flash superficiality. To forestall one complaint: I would not be surprised to find that in the real world Denzel Washington is very active in helping to fight discrimination and supporting black causes and issues. All credit to him if so. But it is through his art that he has a distinctive role to play and we know from Robeson, Poitier and many others before him, that this is an immensely powerful way to undermine racism.

(November 2007)

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