Category Archives: American Gangster

American Gangster

American Gangster is one of my favorite Ridley Scott movies, beautifully staged, shot and edited, chock full of charismatic characters and undeniably relevant to the world we live in today, while still being an action-packed and suspenseful escape from the everyday, with a score that keeps you on the edge of your seat the whole time.

The film is a 1970s costume drama set on the colorful streets of New York City, and stars Denzel Washington as the drug kingpin at the center of an underdog-led investigation that takes a New Jersey detective – played by Russell Crowe – on a roller coaster ride leading all the way to the war in Viet Nam.

Russell Crowe met the real Richie Roberts, and described their encounter in an interview once. Richie, as one gathers from the film, is a bit of a basket case in his personal life, not prone to the best judgment in general, but stubborn as fuck-all when it comes to doing his job, and hanging on to his own personal brand of integrity.

The film dramatizes his divorce and custody battle over his young son memorably, and this fan poem, based on the 26th Psalm, is inspired by that scene.

Judge me if you will, my case is before you.
For I have worked my beat with integrity,
trusting the even-handedness of the law.
I will go my own way – I shall not stumble.
Test me, if you doubt my word – you can try me.
Burn through what’s left of my conscience and my heart.
I’ll take whatever’s left of your kindness back
and carry on with my honesty intact.
I have not joined in with the double-dealers
nor have I fallen in with the criminals.
I despised the racketeering rank-and-file,
never mixing with those cynical bag men.
Just let my reputation stand unsullied
when I present myself in court, your honor,
and let me take this moment to be thankful
for the law’s impartiality and truth.
Judge, I have faithfully served the public good
placing the spirit of the law above all.
Do not stifle my work against offenders
by painting me with the same brush, rank with blood,
from hands that are grasping and deep into plots,
their right hand caught out, stuffed with cash from their bribes.
But do what you will, my integrity stands.
Redeem my hard work, if you respect courage.
I have planted both feet fast on level ground.
In all my endeavors, I honor the law.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Gangster, Music, Poetry, Roll Credits

Kin and country, work and love

What is it with Hollywood and reluctant heroes? I’ve taken one stab at giving them a pedigree, but Schiller’s relatively obscure legacy can only be a partial explanation. As much as Russell Crowe wants to distinguish Maximus from iconic action heroes like the cop in the Die Hard franchise, both characters spend their illustrious careers killing bad guys secretly dreaming of a modest retirement, utterly unambitious in their work despite self-evident talent of a superhero caliber. Would it be worth it to save the world from terrorists if said terrorists hadn’t kidnapped your daughter? Maybe, but only if you happen to be on duty when the shit hits the fan and no one else is available. And therein lies my next angle on reluctant heroes – they’re our family men.

Maximus is trusted by Marcus Aurelius above all men because his excellence as a general doesn’t compromise his commitment to his family with ambition. But if he had put his family first he would not have risked all to honor the dead Emperor’s last wishes for a legacy greater than his conquests. Quintus may have justified his loyalty to the usurper on his commitment to his own family’s safety. Maximus can only offer his family vengeance and impatience to join them in the afterlife. But in her moral philosophy of public life, Jane Jacobs warns against privileging the domestic sphere as more naturally virtuous than public life, or treating the family as an island that can endure in a social milieu where corruption in public life makes it dangerous to trust strangers. Without recourse to justice outside the home, families can be destroyed from within with brutal efficiency.

Not all trade-offs between public duties and private commitments are tragic conflicts. But how often does the gifted artist find balance, when it is so commonplace for the skilled worker to undervalue his own family’s needs out of love of his work for its own sake? Einstein, the iconic genius, was no family man. The alternatives are laid out starkly in Cinderella Man and American Gangster. Jim Braddock faces the world championship with milk money in mind, and Richie Roberts dodges weekends with his son to chase criminals in a city so corrupt his efforts seem futile. Richie is the genius who will beat the odds and single-handedly clean up the NYC drug enforcement police force, against seemingly impossible odds. Jim Braddock is the man we want our children to look up to instead.

I came across an interesting generalization in a textbook on corruption research, “Cultural and social factors are related to a country’s level of corruption; in particular, when family ties are very important, reported corruption is high” (Rose-Ackerman 2006). So it’s not just Sicilian families, then? The more assiduously we provide for our own, the less ground we will give for the public interest, I suppose. Frank Lucas is a family man, exploiting the strength of family ties in his crime organization in the Sicilian fashion, but showing his kin genuine consideration at the same time.

The tension between public life and the security of the household is embedded in the political liberal’s defense of personal privacy and the political conservative’s defense of domestic prerogatives to self-government. Every polity has ideas about how families should work, and every political minority takes refuge in the home when its values are under assault. So there is room for muddying the topic of corruption in with political dissent. If for its own purposes Hollywood is politically cosmopolitan, expecting generic heroes to serve humanity rather than region, country, race or sect, the family is the protagonist’s refuge from overextension, a tribal unit where his identity means something, and not just everyone can make equal demands on him for help. If he’s written too generic, then like the hero in Red he might find retirement a little empty, but sometimes we concede that being the ultimate badass comes at a price, an achievement made possible by love of work to the exclusion of the rest life has to offer.

Leave a comment

Filed under Acting, American Gangster, Cinderella Man, Gladiator, Systems of Survival

Playlist: American Gangster

I only listen to a new album a few times before I integrate into a number of playlists that run 2-5 hours long. Right now I have a little over a hundred playlists; I usually listen to the ones I created most recently though. Usually they’re quite a mix, but when I bought the Grammy winning soundtrack to American Gangster, I noticed it goes quite well with two TOFOG albums, Gaslight and Bastard Life or Clarity, and they both feature prominently in one of my new playlists. I threw in some tracks from the soundtrack to Miami Vice, which I like better than the movie, and some music from the Doors, including a George Winston album called Night Divides the Day. There’s some Fiona Apple too, mostly from When The Pawn Hits… The other album in there is pretty obscure, from a Philippine artist named Kitchie Nadal. Her lyrics have a level of darkness to them that suit the human backdrop to the movie, the Harlem drug scene. I discovered her on YouTube, in a fan video set to a beautiful love song that won her awards. The reason I mention this is that these albums go so well together, the playlist sounds good on shuffle. I usually prefer to arrange my music.

Leave a comment

Filed under American Gangster, Music