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Feature: American Gangster

Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington

Russell Crowe and Denzel Washington tell us why they’re taking to the streets in their new movie

It is testament to the power that director Ridley Scott now holds in the film industry that he can so easily attract the biggest names in the business to his projects. Then again, few actors would pass on the chance to retell the story of heroin kingpin Frank Lucas and the vice-like grip he held on the streets of Harlem in the 1970s. While there has been a long line of distinguished New York-set crime movies, from The Godfather (1972) to Prince of the City (1981), for Denzel Washington, American Gangster offered a new perspective on the genre. “Well, I can say for one, of all those films you mentioned, there’s no black people in any of them,” he asserts. “This is a Harlem story. This is about a guy who was a kingpin, but a different kingpin.” A different kingpin indeed, Lucas was a fiercely intelligent and utterly ruthless individual who managed to create a massively profitable global heroin trafficking business, running rings around both the NYPD and his mafia competitors.

That is until New Jersey-born detective Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe, was tasked with bringing him down, his dogged pursuit of the suave criminal unearthing not only Lucas’s shocking importation methods but an alarming amount of police complicity and corruption. “It’s that kind of film making that just creates worlds,” says Crowe of the authentically stylish world that his director has created for the film. “Some other people have done 1970s movies in the last five or 10 years and everything is heightened because that’s the only way they can see it. The collars are extra long, the platforms are extra high. The bell-bottoms are extra big, but that’s not really what it was. Not everybody wore the fashions of the time.”

While Ridley Scott certainly brings his perfectionist eye to the film’s period detail, its level of authenticity has recently been questioned. As such, not only are a group of New York Drug Enforcement Agents disputing its depiction of widespread corruption with a class action lawsuit, but Lucas himself has since poured scorn on the idea that Roberts actually brought him down. Nevertheless, Washington’s searing portrayal of Lucas was informed not only by the script but by a meeting with the man himself, who many have dismissed as nothing more than a sociopath. “I wouldn’t say that about Frank,” states Washington. “I didn’t find that to be true. He’s a man without a formal education, he’s a man who at the age of six witnessed his cousin get murdered and that changed his life. From a very young age he began to steal and he worked his way up the line.” Later claiming that the incident in which his cousin was shot dead by the Ku Klux Klan formed the catalyst for his life of crime, Lucas later left North Carolina for New York and quickly established himself as a force to be reckoned with. “He was on the wrong side of the tracks, but he was a brilliant student, and became a master of the business that he was in,” continues Washington. “He’s responsible for the death of many people, so I don’t want to just say that he’s a product of his environment, but I guess to a degree we all are. I think had he got a formal education, had he gone in another direction, had he had different influences, I think he still would have been a leader or a very successful man.”

by Jim Reynolds and Steve Dexter

Read the full interview in
Ultimate DVD #88

Photo © Universal Pictures
Feature © Visual Imagination 2008. Not for reproduction

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Ultimate DVD #88
April 2008
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