Things I Learned Watching American Gangster
I want what you got, Uncle Frank
If American Gangster is a music movie, it became a music movie retroactively. More precisely, it became a music movie when Jay-Z decided to make an album about it. When maybe the world's biggest rap star decides to make an album about a movie, and when that album's release date is set to coincide with the movie's own, the rapper effectively attaches himself to that movie and in the process attaches the movie to rap itself. It becomes a rap movie. Before Jay-Z decided to base an album on the movie, it was already sort of a rap movie simply by virtue of having a few rappers in its cast, but none of those rappers has a particularly big part. And the movie itself takes place almost entirely before the birth of rap, with only one actual rap song on its soundtrack. Jay-Z was really smart to tie himself to the movie, though, since American Gangster would've become a rap movie eventually anyway. It's a great movie, the best new one I've seen since Knocked Up or maybe Children of Men, and it comes steeped in the crime-life signifiers familiar from movies like Goodfellas and Scarface and The Godfather, movies that had nothing to do with rap but eventually became rap movies anyway just by virtue of being really badass crime movies. (In a way, American Gangster also works as a sort of critique of rap's ostentatiousness, but I'll get into that more further down.) Jay has connected himself to the movie more than any of the rappers who actually have bit-parts in the thing, and whether his album actually turns out to be any good or not, it'll only gain credibility from its association with the movie. I got to see the movie when Jay's publicist emailed me and told me to go to a press screening, putting me on the list. And I caught a quick glimpse of the guest-list when I was on my way in last night, and I saw more than a few DJs on there, so the movie is already being marketed as, among other things, a rap movie, a smart move for everyone involved. I can't really predict whether the movie will be a massive hit or win Oscars or whatever, but I can say with certainty that it'll become a rap touchstone immediately upon its release. Here are some things I learned watching American Gangster.
• T.I., RZA, and Common all have roles in the movie, but I had no idea until I saw the thing just how small those roles would turn out to be. All three are practically extras. None of them gets any more than a handful of lines, and the closest any of them gets to a big scene is a sort of comedy bit RZA does toward the end. Most of the time, they just lurk in the background. RZA is also the only one allowed to come across as even a little bit of a badass, and he plays a cop. (One of the movie's main themes is that the cops are a lot scruffier than the dealers. The dealers, at least the successful ones, wear business suits and fade into the background, while the cops are out on the streets doing greasy unglamorous shit. RZA wears a big afro and a dirty wifebeater, not a uniform.) I think it's interesting how little the rappers are involved. Ridley Scott could've easily stacked the cast with rappers, but then he would've risked having this movie come off like Paid in Full 2 or something. He could've also played up the presence of those rappers a whole lot more. Antoine Fuqua, who was originally supposed to direct this movie, did something like that in Training Day, and I always thought it was a big forced the way he trotted out Dr. Dre for a big cameo near the end. Instead of going either of those routes, Scott put a few rappers in supporting roles as a small nod to one of the movie's intended audiences, a pandering move that doesn't come across as being too ingratiating since the rappers are barely involved and since all of them are good actors anyway. The movie is actually beautifully cast top-to-bottom with great character actors: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Ruby Dee, Armand Assante, Idris Elba (Stringer Bell from The Wire), John Hawkes (Sol Star from Deadwood), Jon Polito (Detective Crosetti from Homicide), onetime Status Ain't Hood commenter John Ortiz. Even Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe are basically A-list character-actors when they're at their best, which both of them are here. To say that all the rappers manage to keep up with these guys is to pay them a serious compliment.
• There's also a quick cameo from Fab 5 Freddy, but he doesn't really get a chance to do anything.
• So yes, Common plays T.I.'s father, and yes, it's fucking hilarious. The two only get one scene together, and that scene is over in a blink, but hoo boy. The funniest thing about it is that it's totally believable; Common looks to be about 40 and T.I. looks to be about 16. If T.I. had started acting up at that dinner table, it really looks like Common would've sent him up to his room with no dessert.
• At the screening I was at, every time a rapper showed up onscreen for the first time, the crowd would murmur "Common" or "T.I." I didn't hear anyone murmur "Chiwetel Ejiofor."
• When Cuba Gooding, Jr., first shows up as Nicky Barnes, there was one split-second where I thought it was Pimp C making a cameo. Not kidding.
• Given that American Gangster is a period-piece mostly set in late-60s/early-70s Harlem, it obviously follows that the soundtrack would be great; I especially liked a dealing montage set to "Hold On, I'm Comin'." I would've probably liked the movie even better if that soundtrack had been more extensive. Ridley Scott doesn't have the same natural instinct for incorporating pop music that, say, Martin Scorsese or Spike Lee has, and so a lot of really dramatic moments come with stock churning-string film-score music where, say, Curtis Mayfield would've worked a lot better. That's obviously a small quibble, but this sort of thing drives music dorks like me nuts.
• If there's any one thing about the movie that might threaten its status as a rap classic, it's the relative lack of violence. There's one shootout and a couple of grisly scenes, but even The Godfather looks pretty over-the-top in comparison. (Also, I was ten minutes late to the movie, and apparently I missed Denzel doing some really cold shit. So, um, don't show up late.) Denzel is allowed to come across as being badass without being psychotic. That serves to make the character a whole lot more sympathetic, but I wonder how accurate it is. In the original New York magazine story upon which the movie was based, the real Frank Lucas seemed to take particular delight in talking about the people he'd killed, and the movie certainly leaves itself open to charges that it glamorizes a cold-blooded killer and an exploiter of other people's miseries. We get a couple of quick scenes that detail the human cost of the heroin epidemic, but those scenes seem pretty perfunctory. It'll be interesting to see whether rap's cultural critics jump all over this movie in the same way they do with music.
• It'll also be interesting to see what effect, if any, the movie has on rap itself. On the continuum of gangster-movie glamor, American Gangster sits a whole lot closer to The Wire than it does to Scarface. In fact, it's probably as close in tone to The Wire as a movie of its scope can possibly be these days. The movie's drug-kingpins don't hang out in musty funeral parlors or dank junk-shops, but they try to play things as close to the vest as possible. In one scene, Lucas scolds his brother for wearing a flamboyant pimp-suit instead of the conservative business clothes that Lucas himself wears. Whenever any of the characters takes any delight in their money or their notoriety at all, it's presented as being a sign of weakness; the one possible exception is the part where Lucas buys shit for his mom. The Frank Lucas we see in this movie would have nothing contempt for silly shit like, say, this. And since the movie is being released into a world where rap's consumer-culture fetishism has been going full-bore for at least ten years, it works as an indictment of that showy opulence. If nothing else, Jay-Z's whispery flow on "Blue Magic" makes more sense in the context of the movie. If rap's materialism scales itself back a bit over the next year or two, this movie might be a major cause.