The real Frank Lucas is much more interesting to read about in this article than the dramatized Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) is to watch in American Gangster. There's a simple explanation for this:
Then finally, Frank said, "Look, all you got to know is that I am sitting here talking to you right now. Walking and talking -- when I could have, should have, been dead and buried a hundred times. And you know why that is?"Because: People like me. People like the fuck out of me."
Needless to say, it was difficult to "like the fuck" out of Denzel's Lucas character. He just wasn't compelling and charismatic enough. Maybe it's because I always knew I was watching Denzel and couldn't imagine him as the character. Or maybe it's because the movie just didn't do a good job of making Lucas a three-dimensional character. Anyway, I couldn't get into the story and character as I expected to. I found myself much more wrapped up in the aforementioned article and the more recent conversation between Lucas and Nicky Barnes, moderated by the excellent Mark Jacobson.
On another note, why is it that middle-aged Jewish men (Jacobson, David Simon, Richard Price and others) are so good at getting to the core of these black gangsters? Maybe these great writers all just happen to be Jewish. Or maybe, as David Milch believes (in general about Jewish writers), there is more to the story. Because of a need to fit in (and hide their "Jewishness"), Jewish writers have always been able to use a certain chameleon-like quality to integrate themselves into other milieus, especially that of the ideal Christian family in the 1950s. So perhaps these writers are using this same quality to write about important issues in the black community? Just a thought.
Finally, while I was disappointed with American Gangster, partially because I had such high expectations, I will give it credit for at least attempting to do what The Wire does so brilliantly. It showed the story of the streets from both sides. It wasn't always 100% obvious who to "root for." And while it's not fair to ever condone the violence and drug dealing that a character like Lucas engages in, his position speaks to a larger problem with the culture in which he grew up and lived in. When your opportunities are limited to criminal ventures, your only role models are gangsters, and your friends are all involved in "The Game," it is hard to adjust your frame of reference. Most people have a lot in common with their friends and do not want to think of them as doing bad things, things that would reflect badly on themselves. And if it's not bad for your friend to do it, it's not too long before it's not bad for you to do it.
Which leads to this fascinating idea of characters like Lucas (going to Thailand to buy heroin) or for an even better example, Stringer Bell (knowingly applying macroeconomics lessons to drug dealing), displaying business acumen that you know would have been put to better use if they had only explored other opportunities. Or had the chance to do so...
When asked about the relative morality of killing people, selling millions of dollars of dope, and playing a significant role in the destruction of the social fabric of his times, Frank Lucas bristles. What choice did he have? he demands. "Kind of sonofabitch I saw myself being, money I wanted to make, I'd have to be on Wall Street. On Wall Street, from the giddy-up. But I couldn't have even gotten a job being a fucking janitor on Wall Street."