I ignored my own maxim of always checking out the cook before sitting down to eat when I went to the cinema without giving a thought to who directed the film I was about to watch. The film was American Gangster and the director Ridley Scott of Gladiator fame, which had I known would have forewarned me that American Gangster would be lite on facts.
The films two main characters and adversaries, Frank Lucus, [Denzel Washington] a former long time driver, bodyguard and gofer of Harlem underworld kingpin Bumpy Johnson; who after Johnson’s death goes on to become a major importer of Heroin;and Richie Roberts, [Russell Crowe] the New Jersey cop who supposedly brought Lucus down. Lucus is portrayed in the movie as Mr Super-cool, who, we are asked to believe not only comes up with the idea of importing high grade Heroin from the south east Asian golden triangle, but he himself goes into the ‘triangle’ to cut the deal.
As to the Russell Crowe character Ritchie Roberts, he could have been an out-take of the cop Crowe played in LA Confidential, accept his blind violence has been replaced with an equally absurd blind honesty. His honest streak is amplified by Ridley Scott portraying every other cop in the movie, bar Roberts and his team as being corrupt to the core, indeed the only police work these cops ever do in the film is skim and steal the money of the villains they should be out arresting.
I have no idea if this was true of the the police in 1960’s America, but if so, it does not explain how the gallant Detective Ritchie Roberts managed to survive in such a corrupt environment. For example we are asked to believe he hands in almost a million dollars in unmarked bills against the wishes of his partner; and all he suffered was a little scorn and irritation from his supposedly corrupt fellow officers. Frank Serpico had to move to Switzerland after acting in a similar incorruptible way. Yet Ridley Scott asks us to believe that in a police force that is portrayed as corrupt from top to bottom, Detective Richie gets promoted, gains his own squad and ends up an affluent lawyer. [bookmark this fact dear readers]
The most that can be said for this movie is that it is an entertaining way to spend two and a half hours. Which is a crying shame because this is a tale worth telling, and in a more political director and screen writers hands this could have been a brilliant American film. Instead as with the movie The Departed, which was about Whitey Bulger the Boston Irish gangster, which Jack Nicholson’s presence ruined, all we get with American Gangster is a vehicle for star exposure.
The real truth of the heroin that Frank Lucus imported into the USA is a far more murky tale than that of crooked cops and a Harlem drug dealer. For it centers on the CIA and corruption in the US army’s chain of command. In the whole of American Gangster there is only a single, unexplained clip which hints at the bigger picture. This is when Army spooks look on as the Heroin is loaded on to US army planes to be imported into the USA from south east Asia.
It is nonsensical to believe as the movie portrays, that a black heavy from New York, at the hight of the Vietnam war, could fly into Thailand and link up with a serving US army NCO, then travel into the Golden Triangle and negotiate a massive drugs deal, not least because the drugs cartels operating in that region during that period were all in the pay of the CIA. Lucus then on a nod and a wink arranges shipment of the narcotics into the USA courtesy of Uncle Sam.
That Frank Lucus was a narcotics importer and distributor is true, but the movie is asking us to believe that in middle age, this man who had spent his entire life up until Bumpy Johnson death as a gofer. Suddenly emerges a a Capo in his own right with the ability to outwit the Italian Mafia, CIA and US army intel, and survive. The more likely story is that Frank Lucus was approached by the CIA to front the Blue Magic drugs business. After all if we are to believe the movie Patriotism was strong with Frank Lucus. Plus the period in question was a time when many young blacks were turning to radical politics, the Black Panthers and the like. Someone in the Agency may have thought a stoned out black America was preferable to a radicalized black America demanding their democratic rights.
Two subsequent events point to the aforementioned, firstly despite having been intricately involved in one of the most important drug cartels in US history, Lucus was treated extremely leniently by the US criminal justice system. The movie even claims that Ritchie Roberts, the detective who supposedly brought him down, paid Lucus son through college and supported his family whilst he was in jail, which even the most naive person would find pretty preposterous. Although the CIA paying off an old debt would not sound so daft. It is also a fact that hardly any of the scores of serving US army personnel who must have been involved in the importation chain found themselves in court.
Secondly in the 1980s it became common knowledge that the CIA were using South and Central American cocaine cartels to finance illegal operations against the government’s of Nicaragua and Iran. At the time it was said that US army air-bases were used to import cocaine into the USA, which would be off loaded and arms intended for the contras would be reloaded and shipped out. In other words these activities look suspiciously like Frank Lucus operations in the late 1960-early 70’s, coincidence?