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  • Writer's pictureJames Rutherford

'American Gangster': The Gritty Tale of a Crime Kingpin's Rise to Power in 1970's-Era Harlem

Movie poster for American Gangster (2007)

American Gangster (2007) is a gritty crime thriller starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, an American drug trafficker operating out of Harlem from the late 1960's through the 1970's. Originally a chauffeur to mob boss Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson (Clarence Williams III), Lucas assumes control of Harlem's criminal operations after Johnson dies suddenly of a heart attack in 1968.

Orchestrating a clandestine drug network originating in Thailand, with heroin arriving in America via U.S. Soldiers returning from the Vietnam War, Frank rapidly rises to the heights of dominance and notoriety. His enterprises draw the attention of police throughout the tri-state area, however, with Newark Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) leading a special task force to take down Lucas' empire. Alternating between Lucas' ascension as the city's most powerful crime boss and the covert activities of Roberts' dedicated crew, the semi-fictionalized storyline plays out as a tense mano-a-mano battle of personal wills and professional resources.

Directed by legendary filmmaker Ridley Scott (Blade Runner, Gladiator), American Gangster is a formidable drama fashioned as a sleek throwback to gangster films of yesteryear. Washington and Crowe hold it all together with the hard-nosed performances, delivering intellect and immediacy to fore with remarkable gusto. Kudos to Scott and his full crew, including screenwriter Steven Zaillian and cinematographer Harris Savides, who have crafted a vivid portraiture of real-life cops and robbers on the mean streets of 70's-era New York City.


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