American Gangster: What Happens When They Put a Brother on the Wall

I just came back from seeing American Gangster, and my most prominent thought is Do the Right Thing. I know, two different directors, and with the exception of Ruby Dee different casts, but the similarity of two simple scenes was left etched on my mind. In the words of Buggin' Out (Giancarlo Esposito) from Do The Right Thing, "Why ain't there any brothers on the wall?"

What trips me out in this historical fiction (mostly historical, but adapted for the screenplay) is the subtle commentary on race that director Ridley Scott does not play up, but he does recognize. In Russell Crowe's character's attempts to figure out who disseminated Blue Magic, he starts by placing pictures of suspects on the wall. The bulletin board in his office quickly becomes full of Italians. Watching it, I did all but say, "Hey Sal, why ain't there any brothers on the wall?" Time and time again the idea that it would be ludicrous for a black man to have power over the drug game was hinted at. Once Frank Lucas was discovered, the question then became "Who does he work for," and the Italians still remained on the wall.

American Gangster is a difficult movie to dissect. While many are quick to put it with the legions of mob films like Godfather and Scarface(which I admittedly haven't seen), the film becomes complicated with race issues which then gets tied up with morality. Hearing cheers in the theater as Frank Lucas, a black man, took over the drug trade in Harlem, it became necessary to pause. You want to say yes for black business, but not to black on black crime. Is black on black crime better than Italian on black crime? Is that a question that should even be justified?

Still in the end, a racial scorecard is kept and Blacks still lose. At one point in the movie Lucas mentions that these are immigrant groups that came to America after Blacks were first imported as slaves, and they too were able to exploit blacks. If you need a movie reference for the history of this, go watch Gangs of New York. Frank Lucas ends up in jail and his family and operation are torn down, but the mob families go untouched, and are even used as a possible threat to Lucas's career.

Thinking back to how everything came down the weakest link proved to be one of Frank's brothers, who allowed himself to be wired in order to save his life. Is this to say that blacks can't mobilize because the one that's threatened always gives up the answer instead of fighting to the end. It was always the house slave that told the master about the plots to run away, wasn't it? If that's the case then I say the disciple Peter was black, because he betrayed Jesus three times in less than 24 hours.

So, American Gangster doesn't leave any main character as the hero. Frank snitches, Russell Crowe's character is extremely flawed (and really just took on Frank because he found Blue Magic on his dead friend) and the crazy NY detective commits suicide because he was crooked. Still, the mob can go on and live their life and continue to destroy families. Should we honor the mob? No. But something about the resilience of Ruby Dee as Frank Lucas's mother leaves a beacon of hope for us all. Maybe, the real lesson lies in her strength and her largely untold story.

On another note, isn't it strange that JayZ's most acclaimed album since Reasonable Doubt brings him back to the drug game. I know there are deeper lessons about life, business prowess, and respectability to be gained from the movie as well as Mr. Carter's album, but it's interesting to note that his tales of being rich and a mogul don't strike the same cord as his rhymes about an O-Z.

The Queen

props to Russell Crowe on the accent, and Cuba Gooding Jr. I still have a bone to pick with you. Don't dupe me into thinking you're going to do something worthwhile ever again. I think I've lost whatever hope I was holding out for you


  1. so ru gonna elaborate on the elusiveness in the representation of ruby dees character or where u referring to her herself? cause i didn't see ruby dee the activist when i watched her in this role. and yes y was even the cinematography so remiss of any/all spike mvmnts?

  2. No, I'm not going to elaborate on Ruby Dee's character. I'm lazy. I just think because they left her so undeveloped you can make up your own story for her about her life and tribulations and what she must have gone through and find hope. Alternatively you can do your own research and probably be disappointed. You know that she knows her son is doing wrong, but in that one moment she mother's up and puts him in his place...then the film goes back to them in church.

    As for the Ridley Scott/Spike Lee connection or lack of one. I don't know. I actually liked Scott's cinematography in his last film, The Good Year, a bit better (maybe it was easier because it had to do with the French countryside vs. London and allowed for fun comparison shots and flashbacks through the protagonist's life. From what I remember of Kingdom of Heaven, there was more work with the cinematography in that film as well. Scott definitely could have done a bit more with the shots that were supposed to show the destructiveness of drugs...and its Harlem,New York, how do you not get a few better location/establishing shots in throughout the film. Noted, I missed the first 5 minutes, but still...


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