In 2007, director Ridley Scott teamed up with Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe to craft what many consider one of the finest crime movies ever made: American Gangster. Scott skillfully recounted the gripping tale of the infamous Harlem crime lord, Frank Lucas, brought to life brilliantly by Denzel Washington. Russell Crowe took on the role of Richie Roberts, the dedicated detective pivotal in bringing down Lucas, who would later form an unlikely friendship with the once-feared kingpin. However, what truly sent shivers down the spine wasn’t the film’s dramatized elements, but the stark reality it portrayed. The unvarnished truth behind the terror adds depth to the narrative, shedding light on how one man could commandeer the heroin trade in New York.
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To a certain extent, the film offers an accurate portrayal of Frank Lucas and the rise of his criminal empire. Lucas, with his infamous “Blue Magic” heroin, asserted his dominion over New York and beyond, often working alongside his nephew, a mere 17 years old. Lucas ruled through fear, as depicted in the film’s opening scenes when he didn’t hesitate to eliminate those who dared to defy him. The execution of Tango, portrayed chillingly by Idris Elba, provides an initial glimpse into Lucas’s brutal nature. This gruesome murder was based on a real-life event; Lucas publicly dispatched Tango, sending a chilling message with four shots to the head. It was a chilling display of power that solidified his reputation on the streets. Additionally, Lucas earned the respect of Harlem’s Godfather, Bumpy Johnson, who mentored him, solidifying his position in the world of organized crime and establishing connections with the Italian mafia. Following Bumpy Johnson’s demise, Lucas seized power, determined to create his own empire, free from the Italian mafia’s constraints.
Who Was the True ‘American Gangster’?
The film American Gangster paints a vivid picture of how Frank Lucas amassed immense wealth by smuggling heroin from Asia into New York. Lucas held the reins on this operation in the Big Apple, and the smuggling techniques depicted in the film are, for the most part, grounded in reality. However, what the film doesn’t explicitly convey is that Frank Lucas essentially operated under the guidance of a retired Vietnam Army sergeant named Leslie “Ike” Atkinson. Over in Thailand, Ike could acquire a kilo of heroin for a mere $4,000 and then flip it in the United States for a staggering $100,000. Here’s where Frank Lucas entered the picture. Ike had enlisted the support of hundreds of soldiers to aid in transporting millions of dollars’ worth of heroin into the U.S. using military aircraft. With his army of U.S. soldiers, Ike ingeniously concealed the illicit cargo in hollowed-out furniture and stitched false bottoms into bags to facilitate the smuggling of heroin into the U.S. for distribution by Frank Lucas. From 1968 until Frank Lucas’ arrest in 1975, this operation raked in a staggering $400 million.
But by 1975, after nearly a decade of unbridled success, Frank “Superfly” Lucas found himself in the clutches of New York authorities, marking the end of his reign. The film credits Detective Richie Roberts for Lucas’ capture, and while Roberts did play a substantial role in securing a confession, the reality is that he was pivotal in tracking down Frank Lucas. With Lucas behind bars, his operation continued, leaving authorities perplexed as they searched for the elusive “Blue Magic” supply. Undeterred, Roberts pressed on and eventually located Frank Lucas’ family members, who were still involved in the drug trade. A subsequent raid uncovered $10 million worth of heroin. Facing a life sentence, Frank Lucas’ young nephew decided to cooperate, offering crucial information about his uncle’s operations, leading to Lucas receiving an additional 40 years in prison. The story’s absurdity reaches its zenith with Lucas’ confession, which resulted in a staggering 100 jail sentences. However, his cooperation ultimately reduced his sentence from 70 years to a mere six. Remarkably, Frank Lucas was released in 1982, only to find himself convicted once again for selling heroin in 1984, resulting in his imprisonment until 1991.
Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts Form the Unlikeliest of Friendships
One of the most intriguing aspects of this rather unusual story is the enduring friendship between Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts. Even after Lucas’ dramatic downfall, these two men remained in contact, and Roberts has openly spoken about their friendship, emphasizing the belief that everyone deserves a second chance. Roberts has consistently offered an explanation for their relationship, firmly asserting that Lucas expressed genuine remorse for the harm he had inflicted. The seismic impact of ‘Blue Magic’ reverberated through the streets of New York, claiming countless lives in its destructive path. In his own perspective, Lucas always saw himself as more of a businessman than a conventional drug lord. Perhaps this perspective played a role in Roberts’ decision to become the godfather to Frank’s son, Ray Lucas. There are even reports suggesting that Roberts financially supported Ray’s education at a private Catholic school.
Remarkably, their friendship endured until Frank’s passing in 2019, an impressive testament to the depth of their bond. Back in 2007, during an interview with The New York Times, Roberts reflected on Lucas’ complex legacy, stating, ‘Frank Lucas has probably destroyed more Black lives than the KKK could ever dream of.’ Lucas himself, as a child in North Carolina, bore witness to the brutal murder of his cousin at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan. Lucas often claimed that this traumatic incident ignited his journey into a life of crime.
However, for many, American Gangster remains etched in memory as a Ridley Scott classic featuring an exceptional performance by Denzel Washington. Washington’s evergreen charisma convincingly portrays the blend of efficiency and ruthlessness that commands authority on the gritty streets of Harlem and beyond. Lucas himself closely observed the making of the film and developed a mutual respect with Washington during the shoot. Yet, for Washington, it was the untapped potential he saw in Lucas, beyond a life of crime, that truly captured his attention. Speaking to Reuters, the actor mused, ‘Had he received a formal education, chosen a different path, or been influenced differently, I believe he still could have emerged as a leader or a remarkably successful man.’
In reality, the profound damage inflicted on numerous lives was both horrific and deeply saddening. It’s a story that deserves to be known worldwide. However, from an entertainment perspective, the tale of Frank Lucas remains nothing short of captivating. As a crime film, American Gangster unequivocally excels on all fronts. Ridley Scott and his team masterfully crafted a modern classic that promises to entertain audiences for generations to come.