Ruby Dee

American Gangster

2007

Universal Pictures

Directed by Ridley Scott

Produced by Brain Grazer and Ridley Scott

Screenplay by Steve Zaillian

Based on the article “The Return of Superfly” by Mark Jacobson

This isn’t the first time that Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe have squared off against each other in a movie.  Anybody remember the 1995 sci-fi thriller “Virtuosity”?  In that one, Denzel Washington was the cop and Russell Crowe was the bad guy, a virtual reality serial killer unleashed on the real world.  In the years between “Virtuosity” and AMERICAN GANGSTER both actors have made an impressive amount of really fine films and they’ve both won Best Actor Oscars.  Both men have achieved a level of respect and professional achievement that few actors today can claim.  And separately just their names are enough to guarantee a big weekend box office.  So putting them together again in a movie should assure us of some really outstanding scenes between the two of them since both men have done nothing but get better at their craft since 1995, right?

I wish I could say it was so but AMERICAN GANGSTER is a lot like the Robert DeNiro/Al Pacino crime thriller “Heat” or Robert DeNiro/Kevin Costner in “The Untouchables” in that for most of the movie we’re following two separate but intertwined storylines and we have to wait about two hours before we get to what we want to see: the two main actors going at it.  It’s worth the wait to finally see Denzel and Russell face to face, trust me on that but the few scenes they have together are so good you can’t help but wish they had more of them.

It’s the 1970’s and Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) has inherited the crime empire of his boss, the legendary Harlem gangster Bumpy Johnson who has passed away from an unexpected heart attack.  Frank doesn’t waste time in consolidating his power.  To do this he intends to control the heroin traffic in Harlem by cutting out any and all middlemen and making a deal directly with the supplier.  Frank himself flies to Bangkok and with the help of his cousin (Roger Guenveur Smith) he strikes a deal for a previously unheard of amount of heroin that is 100% pure.  He gives it a brand name: ‘Blue Magic’ and sells his product for half the price of his competitors.  Frank brings up his family from North Carolina, including his elderly mother (Ruby Dee) and buys a huge mansion estate for them all to live in.  He makes his five brothers his lieutenants and they proceed to make money.  A whole lot of money.

Ritchie Roberts (Russell Crowe) isn’t having as much fun in his life as Frank is in his.  Ritchie’s wife is divorcing him because of his constant womanizing and his single-minded devotion to his job.  Ritchie is such an honest cop that he turns in a million bucks to his superiors without even thinking for a minute about keeping it for himself.  It’s simple for him because he looks at it simply: the money was made illegally.  He’s a cop.  Cops don’t take illegal money.  Haw.  Remember that this is back in the 1970’s when police corruption in New York was just part of the job.  Ritchie is ostracized by his fellow officers and so he jumps at the chance when his boss (Ted Levine) gives him a chance to head up his own squad of Untouchables who will target the high-level drug dealers.  No nickel-and-dime dealers.  Ritchie’s investigations eventually lead him to Frank Lucas who has managed to stay under the radar for so long because he doesn’t go in for the flashy pimped out lifestyle of his peers like Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) Not Frank.  He dresses in conservative business suits and takes his momma to church every Sunday.  He doesn’t get high off his own supply and he runs his organization with a professionalism that makes him the gangland equivalent of Donald Trump.

Frank intrigues Ritchie who is amazed that a black man could amass so much wealth and power that even old school Mafia kingpins like Dominic Gattano (Armand Assante) give him respect and he’s determined to take Frank down.  It’s not going to be an easy job as Ritchie has no idea how Frank is smuggling his product into the United States and there’s a crooked cop (Josh Brolin) who is making life hell for both Frank and Ritchie.  The lives of these two men intersect at a very critical juncture in their lives and once they join together their story has a unique twist.

AMERICAN GANGSTER works extremely hard at wanting to be an epic crime drama.  But I actually think it works more as a character study of the two men, Frank Lucas and Ritchie Roberts.  Frank Lucas is a cold-blooded killer who can set a man on fire without blinking and sell heroin to children without losing a night’s sleep.  But he also provides for his family, instills a (twisted) set of business values and ethics in his brothers and faithfully attends church every Sunday.  Ritchie Roberts is a helluva cop who chases bad guys by day and goes to law school at night.  He’s also a neglectful father and a lousy husband.  Family values is an elusive concept for Ritchie who seems genuinely puzzled that his wife doesn’t accept his womanizing and off-hour association with the lowlife of New York City.  I think that director Ridley Scott spends so much time on the separate stories of these two men, both of who are looking for The American Dream in their own way and allows us to examine their moral values and ethical codes and he wants us to make up our minds as to what we think of how they achieve it.

Ridley Scott is a strange choice for this type of straight-up crime thriller.  I think perhaps the closest he’s come to a movie like this is 1989’s “Black Rain” starring Michael Douglas.  Ridley Scott is not the first director you think of when it comes to crime thrillers.  In the hands of Martin Scorsese or Carl Franklin I think the movie would have had more bite to it.  As it is Scott focuses more on how these two men conduct their business and their relationships to those around them.  As a result you’re not going to find over-the-top violence such as in “Scarface” “Goodfellas” or “The Departed”.  There is violence, sure.  But it’s handled in an almost documentary like manner.

Denzel Washington turns in his usual outstanding performance as Frank Lucas.  By now we’re all so used to Denzel being so good that it’s no surprise that we’re not able to take our eyes off him when he’s on the screen.  He’s gotten really good at playing bad guys.  And Russell Crowe is easily his equal in acting ability.  Separately they create fully realized characters and both men do more in a scene by saying nothing than other actors do with ten minutes of dialog.  They’re just that good.  And they’re backed up by an equally impressive supporting cast.  Ruby Dee has a really splendid scene where she has to talk Frank down from doing something really stupid and the honesty of the scene comes right out of the screen and grabs you by the shoulders.  Josh Brolin as Detective Trupo steps up his game considerably.  He has scenes with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe and damn if he doesn’t hold his own with the both of them.  It’s an impressive acting job he does here.  Chiwetel Ejiofor and Common have roles as two of Frank’s brothers.  Cuba Gooding, Jr. continues his streak as the most puzzling actor of all time.  Why does this man continue to waste his talent in unfunny so-called comedies when he has such a gift for dramatic roles?  His five minutes as Nicky Barnes in AMERICAN GANGSTER beats out the entirety of “Boat Trip” “Rat Race” and “Snow Dogs” all put together.

I was puzzled by Joe Morton’s character of Charlie Williams who in appearance is a near dead ringer for Gordon Parks.  His character’s relationship to Frank Lucas is never really explained.  He shows up every now and then, gives Frank some sage words of wisdom and then he’s gone.  And while we’re on the subject the relationship between Frank Lucas and his wife Eva (Lymari Nadal) isn’t all that satisfying either.  Despite the scene where Frank goes ballistic on Dominic Gattano when a hit on Frank goes wrong and his wife is almost killed I wasn’t convinced that either of them were ever that much in love with the other.

So should you see AMERICAN GANGSTER?  If you’re a fan of Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe then you probably already have.  And with good reason.  Both men are at the top of their game right now and watching them work is truly a pleasure.  The supporting cast does their job and backs up the leads superbly.  The direction is realistic and not unnecessarily bombastic.  And no, I don’t think that AMERICAN GANGSTER is the great crime epic it aspires to be but it is solid entertainment that’s worth your time to watch.

157 minutes

Rated R

 

Buck And The Preacher

Columbia Pictures

1972

Directed by Sidney Poitier

Produced by Joel Glickman and Harry Belafonte (uncredited)

Screenplay by Ernest Kinoy

Based on a story by Ernest Kinoy and Drake Walker

When I was growing up there were few actors cooler than Sidney Poitier.  Here was a black man who personified everything that I myself wanted to be: smooth, intelligent, proud, articulate, charming, and witty.  I missed the mark on a lot of those aspirations but as a role model I couldn’t ask for better.  He distinguished himself as a major actor way back in the 50’s and 60’s and when his movies such as “To Sir, With Love” “A Raisin In The Sun” “In The Heat Of The Night” and “Lilies Of The Field” were shown on television in my house it was a major event.  My mom and dad plopped me and my sisters down in front of the set right alongside them to watch.  I know it’s kinda difficult for anybody under the age of 30 to understand why an actor such as Sidney Poitier was so important to black people back in the 60’s and 70’s because now we’ve got Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, Samuel L. Jackson, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Avery Brooks, Wayne Brady, Don Cheadle, LeVar Burton and two dozen other notable black actors both male and female.  But once upon a time not so long ago, Sidney Poitier was all we had.  He was it.  He not only was at the top of the pyramid, he was the pyramid.

BUCK AND THE PREACHER is notable for a couple of things that lifts it a couple of notches above your average western.  First off, it’s Sidney Poitier’s first directorial effort and it’s a damn good one.  It’s a western that addresses a major problem former slaves had after The Civil War: okay, we’re free but now what do we do with that freedom? And it’s got a wonderful comic performance by Harry Belafonte, previously best known for popularizing Caribbean calypso music in The United States.  Harry Belafonte had done a number of films previously: the classic “Carmen Jones” with the outrageously beautiful Dorothy Dandridge and 1957’s “Island In The Sun” which was considered a daring movie at the time due to the subject matter of interracial relationships.  But all of his previous movies had been dramas.  In BUCK AND THE PREACHER Harry Belafonte demonstrated a real gift for comedy that he would display again in a later film also directed by his good friend Sidney Poitier: 1974’s “Uptown Saturday Night”

After The Civil War, wagon trains of former slaves are heading west, the promised forty acres and a mule never having been delivered.  But there’s plenty of unspoiled, unclaimed land far to the west and the former slaves are willing to make the hazardous journey.  Buck (Sidney Poitier) is a former Union soldier/scout who uses the skills he learned in the Army and the valuable alliances he has made with the Indians to take the wagon trains through.  It’s not an easy job.  The wagon trains are hunted down by “labor recruiters” who use any means necessary to turn the former slaves around and drive them back to the southern plantations.  And Buck has a price on his head, himself being relentlessly tracked down by bounty hunters Deshay (Cameron Mitchell) and his sadistic right hand man Floyd (Denny Miller)

It’s during one of his escapes from Deshay’s posse that Buck encounters The Reverend Willis Oakes Rutherford of The High And Low Order of The Holiness Persuasion Church (Harry Belafonte) a smooth talking wandering minister with bad teeth and a six shooter in his Bible.  Buck switches horses with The Preacher which leads to The Preacher almost getting killed by Deshay’s men.  It isn’t long before The Preacher catches up with Buck and he thinks he’s got an easy mark in the prospective settlers.  But a bloody nighttime raid affects The Preacher more than even he would have guessed and before you know it, both men have joined together to become outlaws in order to get back the money stolen from the former slaves and get them to their new home in the west, far from the harsh unhappy life they previously knew.

BUCK AND THE PREACHER doesn’t beat you over the head with a history lesson but the motivations of the characters are different enough from your average western that it gives the material a fresher spin than you might be used to.  The plight of the former slaves is laid out with no punches pulled so there’s a clear understanding of what’s at stake.  And the performances by Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte sell the movie.  Poitier’s the grim stoic while Belafonte is the grinning trickster.  They make a great team.  Ruby Dee plays Ruth, Buck’s woman and she has a great scene where she lays it out for Buck as to what she wants out of life and she doesn’t want it in America.

There’s a nice subplot with Buck’s relationship with an Indian chief (Enrique Lucero) and his wife (Julie Robinson) who are sympathetic to the plight of the former slaves but not so sympathetic that they’ll risk the lives of their people.  Cameron Mitchell and Denny Miller (a former Tarzan and for years was ‘The Gorton Fisherman’) make a great pair of bad guys.  Cameron Mitchell has a nice little scene where he explains to a sheriff how slaves are a way of life in the south and without them, that life will soon be nonexistent.

So should you see BUCK AND THE PREACHER?  I think you should.  It’s got a story that showcases a little known period in The Old West so there’s something extra for you.  But it’s also got some great shootouts including the final one where Buck and The Preacher make a last stand against a dozen opponents.  The performances are solid and Harry Belafonte is obviously having a great time with his character.  It’s got Sidney Poitier.  And it’s a western.  What more do you need?

Rated: PG

102 minutes