Sunday, February 24, 2008

American Gangster

I just watched American Gangster tonight. Very enjoyable movie, great acting, decent directing, good script. I think because of its popularity, it could bring a little extra interest to the Wire after the fact (I do know people who started watching The Wire because they liked American Gangster so much). It is obviously very reminiscent of The Wire, and not just because Idris Elba plays a drug dealer who gets killed. It's the "true" story of a notorious drug kingpin, Frank Lucas and his eventual capture by Richie Roberts. With Lucas as an informant, 75% of the NYC DEA was convicted of a crime related to the case (according to the movie, note to self: do some research on the movies facts because its such a darn good story). Many of the "composite" characters are similar: the dirty cops, the brilliant drug lords, the family connections, and the flashy dealers. The scenes of the city poverty along with the ruthlessness of the drug trade make powerful statements. Indeed, the ability of institutions to crush individuals is also there. Roberts refuses to take dirty money and thus becomes alienated by his department full of dirty cops. Lucas sees his boss, Lumpy, crushed because he never got out from under the thumb of those higher up on the food chain.

Yet, American Gangster is ultimately about two people who bucked their institutions and came out alive. Though Lucas did 15 year in prison, and much of his family also did significant time, the movie portrays his decision to snitch as a good one, downplaying the prison time. Roberts is doing very well at the end as a DA (his first client, Lucas). This is a far cry from Simon's bleak view of Baltimore's end. No individuals seem to have escaped thus far (we'll see at the end). Some have criticized Simon for being so impossibly bleak, arguing that for all of the bad ends his characters meet, in real life there are people who manage to get out. American Gangster shows two examples of such from history. Yet even at the end (the alternate added ending on the DVD version only, I think), the two walk on their old stomping grounds 8th (Frederick Douglas) Ave and 116th St. Instead of drugs being sold on the corner its "$100 dollar shoes" and "cafe lattes." They also meet some of the new generation of street toughs who haven't disappeared from this newly gentrified scene. So one wonders if this new happy capitalist world is that different structurally from the old neighborhood. The movie certainly portrays this as a definite, despite the free turkeys thrown out by the dealers in the old neighborhood.

Of course these two series are both fictionalized (artful) accounts of mostly real events. So we can't really analyze them as real events. Yet one can realize that these are distinctly different times. Lucas comes of age in the Vietnam era, selling the marijuana, heroin, and coke popular at the time. He is incarcerated throughout the 1980s and the crack epidemic of that time. Many have pointed to this period as much worse than those that were before or possibly even after it. Simon also portrays the 70s ghetto as a much warmer and friendlier place in his miniseries "The Corner" (we don't really get any flashbacks in The Wire, although the S5 prequel teaser clips show a more nostalgic time perhaps).

What can we learn from these portrayals of American Ghetto? Well, maybe its not all doom and gloom, maybe it is all about capitalism and being the biggest guy on the totem pole. But for my money, Simon has the more powerful piece. Artistically, and it seems like more attention has been paid to detail. The 1970s was a different time, and maybe it was a time where one had social mobility and could break out of their institutions, but in the 21st century, Baltimore remains Baltimore. A place where the Gods will not save you.

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