American Gangster and When Denzel Washington Redefined Mob Rule

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Set during the Vietnam War, American Gangster shows Lucas get his dope from Indochina, making the trip himself to cut out the middleman. If there’s one thing you learn in New York, it’s never pay retail, and the Kuomintang general (Ric Young) is bursting with product eager to move. In what comes to be known as the “Cadaver Connection,” Lucas and a family member, who is serving in the military, arrange to have the drugs sent to America hidden in the caskets of dead soldiers. Frank is an innovative entrepreneur, and this is a very interesting historical fact.

Washington plays Lucas as an untouchable. He earns his street cred by putting a hole in the head of his 20-percent-grubbing competitor, Tango (Idris Elba), in full view of anyone within a two-block radius, and sits back down to lunch. “You are what you are in this world,” he says by way of preamble. “That’s either one of two things. Either you’re somebody, or you’re nobody.” In that one scene, he goes from being Bumpy’s old driver to the new king in town. No one is going to rat him out. He is fully confident of this fact. The hood is behind him.

The film’s anti-villain, Det. Richie Roberts, played by Russell Crowe, gets as much play in the film as the title character, which makes American Gangster a hybrid of the gangster genre with the police procedural. Roberts is also an untouchable, but in the way of films like Serpico and The Untouchables. He is an incorruptible cop, the worst kind. Roberts’ child custody backstory at first appears to be character-building filler but is actually revelatory as a device to compare the fastidious family-first criminal and the rumpled clean cop.

Roberts is villainized by his fellow cops, for the same reason Washington’s Detective Alonzo Harris turns on his partner Jake Hoyt (Ethan Hawke) in 2001’s Training Day: he doesn’t take easy money. Both films blur the distinctions of neighborhood heroes. At that point in his career, the only other time Washington played a villain was in a 1990 Shakespeare in the Park production of Richard III. Lucas is a drug king who sees himself as a businessman, allowing Washington to reconstruct the conventional villain into a sophisticated and low-key ruler. Like he’s taught by Bumpy, a good shepherd rarely has to wave his staff, and a quiet leader barely has to lift a stick.

When the herd is out of control, however, Lucas knows how to clean house. He’s a mob ruler, and there are mob rules for a reason. You don’t shoot cops. It’s bad for business and brings down the heat. Lucas destroys a perfectly good piano door on the skull of a guy who kills a cop. But in the aftermath, he has the quiet reason to give carpet cleaning tips. “Ey, ey, ey, ey, don’t rub on that. You blot that, ya understand? That’s Alpaca. That’s $25,000 Alpaca! You blot that shit! You don’t rub it, put the club soda on there,” Lucas advises in one of the most memorable exchanges in the film. “Simple Simon ass motherfuckers.”

Washington’s Lucas also refitted mob rules of fashion. Traditionally, movie gangsters dress sharp and often loud. The first thing James Cagney’s Tommy Powers does when he makes bank in The Public Enemy (1931) is get a new suit. Humphrey Bogart’s Baby Face Martin in Dead End (1937) brags about his silk shirts. Little Henry Hill comes home in a new gangster suit with the money he makes keeping ice cold in Goodfellas. When Frank’s younger brother Huey struts into a nightclub wearing “a very, very nice suit,” Lucas trashes his threads. “It’s a clown suit,” he says. “That’s a costume with a big sign on it that says ‘Arrest Me.’ You understand? You’re too loud, you’re making too much noise.”

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