“Bumpy was rich, but he wasn't white man rich, you see he wasn't wealthy. He didn't own his own company. He thought he did, but he didn't. He just managed it. White man owned it so they owned him. Nobody owns me, though.”
Released in 2007 Ridley Scott directed American Gangster which follows Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) who earns his living as a chauffeur to one of Harlem's leading mobsters, Bumpy Johnson. After Bumpy dies, Frank uses his own ingenuity and strict business code to become one of the inner city's most powerful crime bosses. Meanwhile, veteran cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) whose life is disorganised and in chaos is on his trail.
Based on the article ‘Return of the Superfly’ in the New York magazine by Mark Jacobson about the rise and fall of 70s drug kingpin Frank Lucas. However the film plays very fast and loose with true life events and many aspects of the story are disputed.
Influences on the film are clear to see throughout you can see inspirations from obviously Superfly and Shaft to Scarface. Although the main protagonists are worlds apart in Scarface, Tony Montana is completely out of control where in American gangster Lucas is cool and calculated. Serpico's impact is also present in the 70s aesthetic and police corruption especially when the film shifts to Roberts POV.
American gangster is a great companion piece to Michael Mann's ‘Heat’ as both movies are a cat and mouse game of cop vs Criminal, both keep the main stars apart for most of the movie. With the main characters kept apart it's important to understand the characters and Ridley Scott spends as much time as possible in the personal lives of Lucas and Robertson. Ridley Scott creates a convincing world in American Gangster, it nails the 70s feel and doesn't hold back the despair and the ruined lives the drug trade brings.
The two main roles have a great polarity, for Crowe he acts as the antagonist for Denzel Washington but also is the protagonist in his own story. Washington is obviously the antagonist but like Crowe is protagonist in his own story breaking free of the control of the Italian Mafia and a corrupt police force, being in control of his own destiny.
This duality and the opposite side of the characters is shown perfectly before the boxing match halfway through the movie, where everything changes. Up until then Roberts is a mess personally, engaged in one night stands and in a battle with his ex wife for custody of their son. Lucas on the other hand is surrounded by family, married to someone he loves and fully in control of his business. Cool and analytical he offers advice to his brothers such as “The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room”.
This changes at the ‘Fight on the Century’ Ali vs Frazier, his wife as a gift gives him an expensive chinchilla coat. He wears it to the fight and he stands out, he becomes the loudest one in the room. Roberts spots Frank, notices he has better seats than the Italian mobsters, and begins investigating him. It's at this point the chaos switches as Roberts becomes focused and Lucas ordered life unravels.
Washington and Crowe are at the peak of their acting powers and create two characters who are interesting and the performances ensure you can't keep your eyes off the screen. Supporting the main leads are a group of actors who ensure all the characters feel real, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Armand Assante and Idris Elba to name a few.
With this piece I wanted to show off the 70s aesthetic, especially the orange tones of the 70s movie posters such as Pam Grier's ‘Friday Foster’. It was pencilled, inked by hand and then digitally coloured. Available in 12” or 20” Giclee prints on 310gsm material.
American Gangster is currently streaming on Netflix.
It's available to buy in Giclee print from our Limited edition collection here
photographs: Universal Pictures/American Gangster