In March I saw Ridley Scott's American Gangster on DVD. It's an entertaining account of a true story, but I'd heard back in November, when it was released, that the film's ending leaves the impression that Frank Lucas, played by Denzel Washington, was essentially a good guy. I can't say I disagree with that impression.
Richie Roberts, the police detective who brought down Lucas and is played by Russell Crowe, practically pats Lucas on the back in the film's final moments for helping him bust crooked NYPD cops who were working with the Mafia to sell heroin on the streets of New York, but who were also getting in the way of Lucas's dominance of the market in Harlem. Lucas helped destroy hundreds, maybe thousands, of lives in Harlem in the early '70s with his highly potent brand of heroin, but he also ratted out some corrupt cops after he had no other options, and for that he should be commended, right? As if the moral repugnance of corrupt cops and drug dealers can be rated like movies, with the cops getting four stars compared to drug dealers' three and a half.
Washington played a dirty cop in Training Day (2001), and though he's brilliantly charismatic in that film, he's also scary as hell because his character, Alonzo Harris, fully believes in his illegal methods of catching the bad guys who don't have badges. I think Scott wants you to forget to a certain degree how much of a bad guy Lucas is, though I'm not saying I don't appreciate shades of gray in bad guys, particularly ones drawn from real life. I just don't think Lucas should've been let off the hook for one second.
In the final scene of American Gangster, as Lucas is leaving prison in 1991 after his second stint (he was sentenced to 70 years in 1976 but served only 5, then was sentenced to 7 more after a second conviction in 1984), Public Enemy's "Can't Truss It" plays in the background. I also recently saw Movin' On Up, a documentary on Curtis Mayfield in which Public Enemy frontman Chuck D talks about Mayfield's soundtrack to Superfly, a 1972 blaxploitation film centering on a heroin dealer who wants to go straight (he's glorified like Lucas is in American Gangster, only more so).
Chuck D says in Movin' On Up that while growing up in Harlem in the early '70s he saw firsthand the effects of heroin addiction on older family members. I doubt he'd think of Lucas as any kind of hero, anti- or otherwise, just as Mayfield was shocked when he saw Superfly for the first time and realized how far the film's message veered from the one he was trying to get across in his songs, including the title track, "Pusherman," "Freddie's Dead," and "No Thing on Me (Cocaine Song)."
American Gangster is based on an article by Mark Jacobson called "The Return of Superfly." Published in New York magazine in 2000, it lists some of the different monikers for heroin that were common in Harlem almost 40 years ago:
Back in the early seventies, there were many "brands" of dope in Harlem. Tru Blu, Mean Machine, Could Be Fatal, Dick Down, Boody, Cooley High, Capone, Ding Dong, Fuck Me, Fuck You, Nice, Nice to Be Nice, Oh—Can't Get Enough of That Funky Stuff, Tragic Magic, Gerber, The Judge, 32, 32-20, O.D., Correct, Official Correct, Past Due, Payback, Revenge, Green Tape, Red Tape, Rush, Swear to God, PraisePraisePraise, KillKillKill, Killer 1, Killer 2, KKK, Good Pussy, Taster's Choice, Harlem Hijack, Joint, Insured for Life, and Insured for Death were only a few of the brand names rubber-stamped onto cellophane bags. But none sold like Frank Lucas's Blue Magic.