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'American Gangster' Tells True Story of Harlem Drug Dealer


Oscar winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe co-star in a crime drama directed by Ridley Scott and based on the true story of the man who ran the illegal drug trade in New York's Harlem 40 years ago. Alan Silverman has a look at American Gangster.

Frank Lucas was 'somebody' in the shady underworld of New York in the 1960's. A protege of 'Bumpy' Johnson, the local crime boss who ran the streets of Harlem for decades, Lucas took over when his mentor died.

Lucas smuggled heroin in the coffins of dead American soldiers returning to the United States from Vietnam. Uneducated - except for what he learned on the streets - Lucas used his innate business sense to build a criminal empire that was rivaled only by the Italian Mafia.

He was brought down by dogged investigator Richie Roberts, a New Jersey police detective-turned-prosecutor who headed a special narcotics task force.

When he was finally arrested and convicted, the crime boss formed a remarkable alliance with the prosecutor; and in return for a shortened sentence, Lucas helped bring down the network of bribed officials and high level drug dealers.

American Gangster stars Denzel Washington in the title role and he spent time with the real Frank Lucas to understand the character and his world. Washington describes Lucas as 'charming;' but says he tried to give an accurate portrayal of the man who, by his own admission, is a murderer.

"If you hang around long enough you'll get the real story," Washington says. "I worked with (journalist) Bob Woodward doing research for The Pelican Brief and he used to say 'let the silence bring out the truth.' So you hang around and listen to Frank, let him brag ...'I was this, I was that' ... but you just keep hanging around and some days, after 11 hours, somebody is tired and another side comes out. You see how a person treats his nephew or somebody who works for him and you go 'oh, okay.' You see a look in his eyes and you go 'oh, all right. Quite a few people who aren't here any longer saw that look.' So you get below the surface."

Russell Crowe plays Richie Roberts and, like the real investigator and prosecutor, Crowe admits to a grudging respect for the convicted drug baron.

"You educate Frank Lucas in a different way and you probably end up in a situation where you'd name universities after this guy. He was smart. He was a good businessman. He took the attitude of a regular product into the dark, murky depths of the heroin business; but he operated it like it was a MacDonald's," explains Crowe. "He sold a higher quality product cheaper. He put it out on the streets at the right time, timed for when welfare payments were made and all that sort of stuff ...he was a clever businessman."

But does making his story into a major motion picture celebrate that death-dealing lifestyle? Screenwriter Steven Zaillian insists that his script was not meant to lionize Lucas or makes his world look attractive.

"I didn't worry about that," he says. "I think that when I write a script I approach it from dealing with the events and the behaviors of the characters and what they did, tell the story in as straight a fashion as I can and let people come to their own conclusions. I certainly didn't go out of my way to make him sympathetic. You see him kill three or four guys in cold blood. You see people dead from his product, so that was never a problem for me."

Director Ridley Scott says the real Frank Lucas spent considerable time on the film set as a 'technical advisor;' and the filmmaker says he recognized something familiar in the now-retired gangster.

"These guys are all performers and my life is with performers, so in a funny kind of way, with Frank it is like talking with an actor," says Scott. "It's as if he didn't do it. That makes him a true sociopath. There is lots of memory, but there is no association with anything emotional."

American Gangster features British actor Chewitel Ejiofor as Lucas's younger brother and right-hand henchman. Screen and stage legend Ruby Dee plays their aged, but strong-willed mother. Josh Brolin plays a corrupt police detective; and the cast also includes contemporary music stars RZA and Common.

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