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American Gangster (11/5/2007)

Good historical films transport us to a bygone era. Filmmaker Ridley Scott has managed that trick a few times. "Gladiator" brought ancient Rome to life. "Kingdom of Heaven" immersed us in the Middle Ages. In his latest film, "American Gangster," Scott recreates a milieu closer to home - New York City in the 1970s.

It was a bad time for New York, and Scott's vision is so filthy and rundown you can almost smell the rotting garbage. New York back then was rife with ruthless drug dealers, crooked cops and hollow-eyed junkies. And presiding over them all was Frank Lucas, the black godfather of Harlem, who outsmarted the Mafia to control the drug traffic for the entire region.

“American Gangster” tells Frank Lucas' story, as well as the intertwined tale of Richie Roberts, the cop-turned-prosecutor who pursued Lucas for years.

The real Frank Lucas, now paroled and rehabilitated, acted as a consultant on the film and raves about it.

"You gotta see the movie," he has said in interviews. "Every word is true."

Is it? Let's see.

Q. Despite all his bad deeds, Lucas comes off as a somewhat sympathetic character. Did they exaggerate that?

A. Not really. Ridley Scott was intrigued by Lucas's life precisely because of the gangster's complexity. In many ways, Lucas embodied the classic American success story.

He escaped poverty and discrimination as a young man, and through his own brilliance and keen business instincts he forged a business empire that made him enormously wealthy. He rubbed shoulders with Joe Louis and Wilt Chamberlain. He was a generous benefactor to Harlem charities.

Lucas might have been another Andrew Carnegie, except that his 'business' happened to be heroin, and his success at it resulted in the death and addiction of thousands.

The film doesn't pull punches in showing Lucas's ruthlessness in maintaining his power. But it also conveys his charming side. By all accounts, Frank Lucas was - and remains - an enormously engaging guy, who people end up liking despite themselves. Both the prosecutor and the judge who sent him to jail are now his friends. Denzel Washington, who portrays Lucas in the film, expressed concern about glorifying the man and his drug dealing. Yet after spending a few weeks with him, Washington was so charmed by the aging gangster that he bought him a new car.

Q. Did Lucas really smuggle heroin in the coffins of dead American soldiers?

A. Yes. It was known as the Cadaver Connection. In the late 1960s, Lucas traveled to Southeast Asia and set up his own supply network for heroin, thereby circumventing Mafia control of the trade. But how to smuggle it back into the States? Lucas had special military coffins built, fitted with false bottoms to hide up to a dozen kilos of pure heroin each. Then he bribed enough military officers to keep the operation quiet. Macabre but genius. As Lucas said, "Who the hell's gonna look in a dead soldier's coffin?"

Q. Did Lucas have naked women preparing his heroin for sale?

A. He did, and it's one of the film's more startling images - a crew of young women stand around a table mixing mounds of heroin into Lucas's 'Blue Magic' brand, while wearing nothing but surgical masks. They were naked, said Lucas, to keep them from stealing any dope.

Q. Did Lucas get noticed because his girlfriend encouraged him to wear a flashy fur coat?

A. That section's a bit exaggerated. Lucas did famously wear a chinchilla coat and hat to the 1971 Mohammed Ali -Joe Frazier fight, and claims it was the first time the cops noticed him. But Richie Roberts, the cop who dogs him in the film, disagrees with that story. "We knew who he was before that fight," he asserted in a recent interview.

Q. Is the nasty Detective Trupo an actual person?

A. Trupy - played by a terrific Josh Brolin - is the real villain of the movie. But he wasn't an actual person. He's a composite character who represents the rampant corruption among 'New York's finest' in the 1970s. Perhaps nowhere were dirty cops more evident than in the Narcotics Special Investigations Unit. According to journalist Mark Jacobson, "By 1977, 52 out of 70 officers who'd worked in the unit were either in jail or indicted."

Q. How accurately was Richie Roberts portrayed?

A. Roberts' importance to Lucas' story is a bit beefed up for the movie, probably because Russell Crowe was cast to play him. In the film, Roberts almost single-handedly brings down Lucas. In reality, Roberts was simply part of a much larger team investigating the drug lord. And though he was the prosecutor in Lucas' trial, Roberts probably wasn't there at his arrest, much less at the climactic shoot-out with Lucas' henchmen.

Q. So, Roberts and Lucas never forged the relationship shown in the film?

A. They did, actually, though it took longer than the film suggests. It wasn't until Lucas' second trial, when, according to Roberts, a weeping mother testified about finding her son dead after he had overdosed on Lucas' 'Blue Magic.' Afterwards, Lucas asked to see Roberts.

"He had his head in his hands and his eyes were teary," recounts Roberts, "and he said, 'I never thought of it that way'" From that moment, Lucas became an invaluable informant for the police, and he and Roberts worked to bring down more than a hundred drug dealers and corrupt cops.

But what the movie doesn't show is how close Roberts and Lucas grew over the years. When Lucas was released after 12 years in prison, it was Richie Roberts who met him. Today, Roberts is the godfather to Lucas' youngest son. The two friends meet regularly, and watched the filming of "American Gangster" together. Their true life friendship is an unexpected denouement to this gangster story, but it's in keeping with the moral complexity of Frank Lucas.

"What can I say? I'm crazy," says Roberts. "I can't help but care about him."

Cathy Schultz, Ph.D., is a history professor at the University of St. Francis in Joliet and writes a syndicated column on historical films.

Daily Southtown, 11/5/07



Russell Crowe channels the '70s.


The Clash of the Titans. The two actors don't share screen time until the end of the film.




© 2004 History in the Movies
cschultz@stfrancis.edu