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American Gangster

The movie American Gangster was filmed in my neighborhood in Harlem. The steps of the church Denzel Washington is standing, in the photograph above, is just around the corner from my home.

My home is just a short walk from where I grew up. The street just behind Denzel’s head is the street where Maya Angelou and Kareem Abdul Jabar own brownstones.

Once you get past the street closures, and parking restrictions the filming of a movie requires; it is pretty cool to have one made on your block. They did a decent job making the area look older with the vintage automobiles and false store fronts. They even changed the street signs – renumbering a few which startled the heck out of me one morning (I thought I’d snapped). But the coolness ends there.

I saw the movie, and was not impressed. The characters were just so poorly developed. Kam Williams, a frequent reviewer for, articulates many of my feelings quite well: giving the movie 1.5 stars (out of 4).

A poor movie with a talented cast is a regrettable waste of limited resources. However, in this case, waste is not the only problem.

The character of Frank Lucas is being glorified in the process. Frank Lucus was the MAN, clocking, purportedly, one million dollars a day over a five year period. He is the Black Scarface who survived the game. He is revered by many and reviled by few.

To Lucus’ credit he says “I’m not the one to glorify” but those around him seem to be doing the exact opposite. Even Denzel Washington seemingly gives him a pass, in the most recent Jet Magazine; pointing to his tragic childhood as a cause or explanation for being a murderous drug lord.

Here’s the thing: I grew up during the hey day of heroine epidemic in Harlem. I can’t tell you how bad and on how many levels Harlem has been adversely affected by the drug trade. Drugs destroyed families and has continued to effect our children for generations – into the present day.

Of course it is not ALL Frank Lucus’ fault and if it were not Frank, there would have been someone else in his place. Obviously the local government was actively involved and profiting from our nightmare. The federal government, at the very least, turned a blind eye, but more likely was actively involved too.

Our more progressive Brothers, who I argue are contributing to the glorification of Frank Lucus, say “who better than Frank Lucus to warn our youth about the dangers of selling drugs”. I hear where they are coming from but why do we ALWAYS feel the best person to tell someone how to be law abiding, is someone that never was — At least not until they were really too old that they are incapable of doing otherwise.

It seems to me that one would get an individual who is actually successful, legally, to tell our children how to do it.

But I know it is far more exciting to hear crime does not pay from a celebrity gangster, than it is from some unknown barbershop owner or an accountant for a Fortune 500.

BET has a program called American Gangster which profiles Black criminals. It would be nice if they had a program called American CEO which profiled Black captains of industry.

I wonder if anyone would watch.


Troy D. Johnson is the President, founder and webmaster of, LLC (The African American Literature Book Club). Launched in March of 1998, has grown to become the largest and most frequently visited website dedicated to books and films by and about people of African descent.