Too much mythology in 'American Gangster'?

Ridley Scott

What happened

Ridley Scott’s American Gangster topped the Hollywood box office over the weekend, raking in $46.3 million. Based on a true story, the film stars Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the crime lord who ruled Harlem in the 1970s, and Russell Crowe as the New Jersey cop determined to bring him down. Critics said it was hard to reconcile the Hollywood version of Lucas' story with a documentary currently airing on the Black Entertainment Network.

What the commentators said

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Not only is the portrayal of Lucas in American Gangster “irresponsible,” said Stanley Crouch in the New York Daily News, it’s inaccurate. In the movie, he’s played as “a soft-spoken and sophisticated man who closely studies the written word and only explodes into violence now and then.” In reality, he was “illiterate and could not count,” and “not only killed people to impress his ruthlessness on the underworld, but even put out a murder contract on one of his own brothers.” American Gangster is further proof “that Hollywood is much less interested in aesthetic grandeur than it is in profits.”

Speaking of profits, said Susannah Cahalan in the New York Post, Lucas is making out pretty well on American Gangster. “The movie is stuffing the pockets of the former druglord, who is legally able to profit from his crimes.” So far, he’s “received $300,000 from Universal Pictures and another $500,000 from the studio and” Denzel “Washington to buy a house and a new car.” On top of that, Lucas says he “has plans for a gangster video game and a clothing line, and is negotiating a possible sequel to the film.”

Can’t we just evaluate American Gangster for what it is—a movie? said Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times. Sure, watching it “in tandem” with the documentary “underlines that this impressive film is less based on actual fact than on movie fiction.” But as far as “the big screen is concerned,” it doesn’t matter. American Gangster is “re-creating myths, and it’s good to see that the movies haven’t lost their touch where that kind of work is concerned.”

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