American Gangster, American Stereotype

NAM, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Nov 07, 2007

Editor’s Note: “American Gangster” is brilliant cinema that unfortunately gives the wrong impression that blacks are the main players in America’s drug problems. NAM Associate Editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is “The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African Americans and Hispanics” (Middle Passage Press).


“American Gangster” is a big, brash and brilliant cinema tour de force. But it also reinforces a glaring stereotype – one of America’s most enduring stereotypes –that the drug problem and drug kingpins come with a black face.

There are two telling scenes in “American Gangster” that drive that point home with a tormenting vengeance.

The first is near the end of the film when intrepid cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe), whose sole mission is to nail black drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), faces off with the busted Lucas in a police interrogation room. He indignantly lectures Lucas that his dope peddling has spread death and destruction that wrecked and ruined hundreds of lives. In the second scene there is a fleeting glimpse of a white soldier shooting up heroin in a servicemen’s hangout in Bangkok, Thailand. Other than that scene and a quick look at a white junkie getting whacked by Lucas, there’s no hint that the drug racket and the gangsters that run it – bribing cops and politicians, and putting an army of small time dealers and bagmen and women on the street – are anything but African Americans.

Washington invests in Lucas a chilling mix of charm, business savvy and raw brutality. That further reinforces the notion that a black man can be bigger, smarter, and more audacious than the organized crime racketeers that in decades past ran – and still largely run – the drug trade in America. They are the ones who hold an iron grip on the foreign growers and suppliers, the transport, street distribution, and the network of banks that launder the dirty money.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s survey on the sex and drug habits of Americans last June further tossed the ugly glare on who controls and uses drugs in America. The survey found that whites are much more likely to peddle and use drugs than blacks. Non-Hispanic whites had a higher percentage of using cocaine or street drugs (23.5 percent) than blacks (18 percent).

Other studies have found roughly equal rates of drug use by blacks and whites. But what made the CDC survey more eye-catching is that it didn't solely measure generic drug use, but singled out the use of cocaine and street drugs – the kind of drugs depicted in “American Gangster.”

The findings fly in the face of the conventional drug war wisdom that blacks use and deal street drugs while whites use trendy, recreational designer drugs, and that these presumably include powder cocaine. That once more calls into question the gaping disparity in drug sentencing between whites and blacks.

earl

More than 70 percent of those prosecuted in federal courts for drug possession and sale (mostly small amounts of crack cocaine) and given stiff mandatory sentences are blacks. Though the Supreme Court recently agreed to review the disparities in drug sentencing, it hasn't ruled yet and won't for many months. The majority of those who deal and use crack cocaine aren't violent gang members, but poor, and increasingly female, young blacks. They need help, not jailing.

But that’s the morality tale theme that heavily underpins “American Gangster.” If you’re black and you use drugs you’ll either die, become a walking zombie, or rot behind bars. And more than likely the guy that sells the junk will skip away scot-free, live a princely lifestyle, retire with fabulous wealth and, if unlucky enough to get popped, cut a deal to rat out crooked cops or competitors. Lucas did just that and, considering the very real death and destruction that he spread, he waltzed away with a relative hand slap sentence. Then he gives the supreme self-serving rationale for the dirty dealing by wailing that if he didn’t do it, somebody else would.

However, the real drug boss rarely looked like him. In fact, Lucas and his black competitor Nicky Barnes (who has a cameo role in the film and is the subject of a recently release documentary, “Mr. Untouchable”) are the rarest of rare birds. In the movie, Lucas is portrayed as a black drug boss who supposedly topped the mafia for control of the drug business in Harlem. Through cunning and dumb luck, he found an opening in the Vietnam War, a willing, strategically placed accomplice among the black soldiers in Vietnam, and a supplier to get him the drugs and help with the transport.

It all adds up to one thing: The public scapegoat of blacks for America's drug problem during the past two decades has been relentless, and the at-all-costs hunting down by Richie (Crowe) of Lucas (Washington) in “American Gangster” is a stark testimony to that relentlessness.

The greatest fallout from the nation’s hopelessly flawed and failed drug hunt for scapegoats is that it makes it easy for on-the-make politicians to grab votes, garner press attention, and bloat state prison budgets to jail more black offenders, while continuing to feed the illusion that the drug war is winnable. Unfortunately, “American Gangster” won’t do anything to change that illusion.

Related Catagories:

Earl Ofari Hutchinson's articles

Race Relations

Criminal Justice

Page 1 of 1

Share/Save/Bookmark

User Comments


Abel Macias on Dec 06, 2007 at 13:35:12 said:

It's a MOVIE. yes, it's based on events that happened. Guess what, I know plenty of true events that happened that show how capitalism exploits poor people, but we don't see films on this topic. The problem is not whether this film is based on reality or not, the problem is whatever you put up on the big screen people don't question or have a critique of it. They just absorb it and have no discussion like the one taking place here. See, that's the problem with Hollywood, it would be great if we were all critical thinkers and could go to the movies for strictly entertainment, but with lack of dialogue, good education, community conversations, blockbuster films become the way we understand the unknown. (ie, black, brown and poor). With lack of understanding this becomes how people understand us (i'm brown), so we literally depend on hollywood and television to inform us the other.

peace


Cynthia on Nov 15, 2007 at 13:25:19 said:

I saw the "boot-leg" copy of American Gangster. My question is why oh why is this movie being distributed all over, everywhere, and so fast? My answer: to sell more and more stereotypes to the public about Black people, and the scary part in this is many Black people are falling prey to this movie.

It is so interesting that a Black man, Frank Lucas, is free...not in prison...and yes, I know about the deals he made...but he's free after being known, or portrayed as being a murderer. This is unreal to me. This animal should still be in prison.

I'm appalled, that's all I can say. Oh...and I'm a Black woman who is sickened by this!!


Saundra Goodman on Nov 12, 2007 at 22:14:50 said:

As soon as I saw them filming in my Harlem neighborhood, I said to myself, here we go back to the '70's again (when they had all those 'black-xploitation' movies). I don't know, it seems to me that whether it's black or white, Hollywood keeps playing down to the lowest common denominator in the American audience. After all, we already know (via, the French Connection, the Godfather, Superfly, Serpico, et al) that America has had an ongoing battle with drugs. But do we have to see it on the big screen again and again and again? Where is the originality in film-making?


Darrell on Nov 07, 2007 at 22:33:22 said:

I understand where you are coming from with this article. It makes sense, especially when you pay attention to the glaring stereotypes and images that are portrayed of our people on television, in magazines, and throughout any outlet that is viewed upon by mass people.

BUT, let's not lose focus that this is a film that is based on the TRUE LIFE of one Frank Lucas, told through HIS eyes. At the end of the day, if what he is saying happened, then why judge/question it? WE know it's WRONG, or at least we SHOULD know. It's up to parents to raise their children correctly...stop blaming the media for EVERYTHING. Violence was here long before there was TV or radio. Violence will be here long after. At the end of the day, we can't blame Stereotypes which were portrayed in the movie for our problems. IF I was Frank Lucas, and I told you I did this a certain way, I wouldn't want you LYING and saying "instead of having a white guy here, we'll put a black guy here", and vice versa. Keep it the way I saw it go down.

People are judging this movie too much and not paying attention to real issues.


RonEdwards on Nov 07, 2007 at 12:37:09 said:

Thank God for you Earl! My family and friends think that I\'m crazy when you look at the sea of negative media stereotypes of the black brute drug dealer. I can\'t beleive how few people even know how complicit the British government is in the poppy wars of pre-British Hong Kong or how the German drug manufacturer Bayer invented Herion. The black community is so emotionally high to see Denzel in a movie that they never stop to think how easily the pop cultural stereotypes work their way in to legislation and real jail time for over one million brothers! Remember Jim Crow, that adorable mistral era character that worked its way into aparthide separate but equal legislation. We the black people need to wake-up and take a sober look at how the media propaganda is working against all of us, while enriching a few millionaires like Mr. Washington and Jayzee.


RonEdwards on Nov 07, 2007 at 12:17:04 said:

Thank God for you Earl! My family and friends think that I\'m crazy when you look at the sea of negative media stereotypes of the black brute drug dealer. I can\'t beleive how few people even know how complicit the British government is in the poppy wars of pre-British Hong Kong or how the German drug manufacturer Bayer invented Herion. The black community is so emotionally high to see Denzel in a movie that they never stop to think how easily the pop cultural stereotypes work their way in to legislation and real jail time for over one million brothers! Remember Jim Crow, that adorable mistral era character that worked its way into aparthide separate but equal legislation. We the black people need to wake-up and take a sober look at how the media propaganda is working against all of us, while enriching a few millionaires like Mr. Washington and Jayzee.


star people on Nov 07, 2007 at 12:06:16 said:

its a movie based on a true story! What do you want?


Gerard Rohlf on Nov 07, 2007 at 10:53:22 said:

Hello, Mr. Hutchinson,
I have not yet seen the movie, though I intend to see it. The cast alone makes it irresistable fare. I wonder, however, what could have been done differently, given the subjects, Mr. Lucas and Mr. Ritchie.
I have been a great fan of both "The Sopranos" and "The Wire" - and I do believe that the latter gives a more balanced view - if more disturbing, due to the indemic (is this a proper usage?) nature of what it portrays.
Anyway, all I am trying to say in this ramble is that the people portrayed in the film, given the nature of their business, should not be viewed as typical of their respective races. I hope that not everyone will view them that way. Certainly, you do not, and, I pray that I do not.
Unfortunately, my experience tells me that it is virtually impossible to be born and raised in America, of any racial heritage, and NOT be racially over-stimulated. At the risk of sounding simple-minded, I believe we are all Racists in America, in that we all harbor a racial anxiety, sensitivity or even proclivity towards biased thinking that I have not seen in other countries. I believe it to be scar tissue from Slavery and Civil War that has not yet healed. Heaven help us!

Be well, and keep moving forward!
Gerard Rohlf.


Stan Tatum on Nov 07, 2007 at 10:37:48 said:

If you take the film solely at face value, then you may uphold the stereotype about "us" and the drug trade. That being said, one could simply connect the dots and see that there were far more non-black hands in the mix when it came to transporting and distributing heroin into the US.

If we're to take the montage of Frank's Southeast Asian smuggling as a snippet of an operation that spanned at least 5 years, you can conclude that the white officer in Vietnam who took payoffs was symbolic of higher-ups who were in on the trafficking.

Take a look at the closing captions regarding Lucas' testimony resulting in the arrests of 75% of DEA agents and countless cops. One can surmise- due to the era, that whites in law enforcement were part & parcel with Lucas' (and the Mob's) nefarious scheme. One can also take Jones' (played by Wu-Tang's Rza) quip about white suburban kids smoking Lucas' heroin (due to the high potency) & you can ingest that they were certainly a significant portion of Lucas' purchasing public.

Yeah, it's not all up there on the big screen, visually but you can make certain connections if you're not distracted by Denzel's performance and various cameos and strong visual sense.

-->




Advertisement


ADVERTISEMENT


Just Posted

NAM Coverage

Criminal Justice

ADVERTISEMENT

Advertisements on our website do not necessarily reflect the views or mission of New America Media, our affiliates or our funders.