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RUSSELL CROWE as outcast cop Richie Roberts, Director/Producer RIDLEY SCOTT and DENZEL WASHINGTON as gangster Frank Lucas on the set of the film that tells the true juggernaut success story of a cult hero from the streets of 1970's Harlem: American Gangster. Credit: David Lee 2007 Universal Studios

Why The Two-Time Oscar Winner Is So Good Playing The Bad Guy In The Epic Film, American Gangster?

Academy Award-winners Denzel Washington (for Glory and Training Day) and Russell Crowe (for Gladiator) first acted opposite each other a dozen years ago in Virtuosity a sci-fi crime thriller set in virtual reality. In that picture, Denzel played a police lieutenant out to catch Russell’s character, a sadistic serial killer.

Now, the two have swapped sides of the law for American Gangster, with Crowe as the cop, and Washington as the crook. The film is based on the real life exploits of Frank Lucas, a Harlem heroin kingpin from the late 60 and early 70’s, and Richie Roberts, the cop who brought him to justice, as originally chronicled in a New York Magazine article by Mark Jacobson entitled “The Return of Superfly.”

“He was a force of nature. He was the King of New York. He ran everything from river to river,” said Denzel Washington in describing the real Frank Lucas. “I grew up in New York and I remember those streets where the drugs were being sold. I didn’t know it was because the guy I was gonna meet 34 years later was supplying everybody with drugs.”

While promoting the new gangster epic, it’s clear Washington and Crowe respect each other work and remain good friends almost resembling like an old married couple. At our interview session, they often completed each other’s sentences. Strange thing considering the two don’t come together on screen until the last 12 minutes.

Besides a joke or two about who has more Oscars (for the record - it’s Washington. He has 2 and Crowe has 1), and who’s the real gangster in the film - the crooked cops or Frank Lucas, the two men seem to know they along with director Ridley Scott and producer Brian Grazer, have created something very special for the big screen.

From the first 10 seconds of the film, you’re clearly vested. You want to know more and the more you know, the more you’re lured into a tense cat and mouse game. Bring a pen, take good notes. Denzel Washington delivers some of the best lines and best advice ever in a film. Advice that will come in handy for anyone these days especially young people such as when Washington is dressing down his brother (Chiwetel Ejiofor) for all his bling bling. Washington remarks “the loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.”

Playing a legendary gangster who’s still around to critique his work and who’s hanging around the set everyday to seemingly insure he’s characterized properly could have been intimidating, but Washington says he approached he character the same way he did Rubin “Hurricane” Carter - the legendary boxer.

“I sat down with him and then hung out with him. We went to church, to eat, rode around Harlem and he showed me where this happened, where that happened and how he did what he did.” One thing, Washington says he did say was “don’t tell me anything I don’t need to know, I don’t want to have to testify.”

As for Frank Lucas, who finished serving his time but still gets death threats - even today - he’s proud Washington is portraying him. “He was my first choice. You can’t get nobody better. Who ya gonna get? The son of a b*tch ain’t been born yet.”

{mospagebreak} Why he’s so good playing the bad guy? Washington won’t venture a guess. He says it’s just acting. A job. He has thoroughly done his homework on the character and it shows. If you’re a betting person, bet this: Denzel and Crowe may need to clear space on his mantel for another golden statue come Oscar season.

Sentinel: What’s the dynamic like when you have two Hollywood heavyweights like yourself and you both have Oscars. What’s it like on the set?

RC: He kept bringing them to the set. (laughing)

DW: I brought two of them. I brought them both. (laughing)

Sentinel: Denzel and Russell, you both have come a long way since you first worked together.

RC: [Sarcastically] Virtuosity, yes, a wonderful movie. That was just a momentary lapse, wasn’t it? We were both young then, young and innocent. [Laughs]

DW: Not after that movie. We were old and tired. [Laughs]

Sentinel: Can you talk a little about the theme of good versus evil as seen in the confrontation between your characters in American Gangster?

DW: [Laughs] Who was the good guy and who was the evil guy? A chord runs parallel in both. Jump in there, Russell. [Chuckles]

RC: That’s the delicate balance. I think that’s one of the fascinating things about the two characters, and about the story itself is that none of that’s clear. There’s not a clear, singular morality. When you get the opportunity to play that sort of character, which is nothing more than reality and humanity as it exists, it’s just a bit of fun. Richie’s an honest guy, but as his wife says in court, “You’re only honest in one area. You’re trying to buy yourself favors for all the other [expletive] that you do.” I think that just was an honest appraisal of who he was as a man at that time. But it also leaks into that area of discussing why people go bad in the first place or what the process of Frank Lucas was to become a drug dealer. If Frank Lucas had been befriended by somebody else, and educated in a different area, you might have a situation where there’s universities named after him now. He’s a very smart guy, and he used the things he learned to the best of his ability to change his life and the life of his family at that time. But it just happened to be that Bumpy Johnson was his teacher. So, he did his course work on the street and earned his Ph.D. in criminality under Bumpy Johnson.

DW: He was a man without a formal education, a man who at the age of six witnessed his cousin get murdered by sociopaths in uniforms. That shaped his life. From a very young age, he began to steal. He was on the wrong side of the tracks, but he was a brilliant student, and he became a master at the business that he was in. It’s a dirty business and he’s definitely a criminal who was responsible for the deaths of many people. I don’t just want to say he was a product of his environment, but as Russell said, had he gotten a formal education and had different influences, I think he still would have been a leader, but he’d have gone in a different direction.

{mospagebreak}Sentinel: What do you say to those who feel like this film glamorizes a gangster or the gangster lifestyle?

RC: That’s a sort of easy one to take head-on because quite frankly, large parts of Frank Lucas’s life were very glamorous. The nightclubs, hanging out with Wilt Chamberlain, sports figures and celebrities of the time. His public persona as such was the guy that ran this nightclub. Everything else that fell down from that was not known. Wilt Chamberlain or any of these celebrities that were hanging out with him wouldn’t have known that Frank was turning over a couple of hundred keys every month in heroin, you know what I mean?

DW: And they may have known that he still had the club where the chicks were.

Sentinel: Why do you think there’s outrage over rappers making gangsta videos but not over actors making gangsta movies which glorify the same lifestyle?

DW: There’s a difference. This is one movie, not the only movie. In 2005, I did Julius Caesar. Not knocking rappers, but I can do both. So, whenever any rapper’s ready to do Shakespeare, I’ll be there.

RC: Wait, I think that what the question’s trying to get at is actually something pretty cool. He’s saying that when a guy sings a song about his life as a gangster on a record, people get down on him. But you and me, we make a movie about us in that same world, and we get praised for it from a creative point of view.
DW: Yeah, well some rappers who have made gangster albums have gotten praised for it, too. Some real good ones. America’s Most Wanted is still one of my favorite albums.

RC: Is it the criminality that people are getting upset with now about the music, where you’re literally singing the praises of gun worship, as opposed to a movie that plays out in front of you and a story that’s being told showing something that actually happened?

DW: And that these are the consequences.

RC: There’s definitely a difference there.

Sentinel: Where does American Gangster fit in the pantheon of New York City mob sagas such as Naked City, The Godfather and Goodfellas?

DW: Well, I can say, for one, that among the movies you mentioned, there’s no black people in any of them. So, the situation may basically be the same, but this is a Harlem story. I guess it is to a degree a genre. There are certain things that are similar about those kinds of films, but this one in particular deals with a guy from uptown.
Sentinel: Given all the accolades you’ve already received, what inspires you to continue making movies?

DW: Professionally, now, I’ve sort of segued, and I’m starting to head in another direction. I’m getting behind the camera. I’ve directed [The Great Debaters] for the second time now, and I’m sure that’s my new career. What we do is making a living. It’s not my life. My children and my family, that’s life. That’s the miracle of life. I get up every morning, God willing, for that.

RC: I’ve always found it to be a privilege to make movies. It’s a really expensive, creative medium. And people allow me to do it, and there are things that I can do as an actor that I couldn’t do in any other walk of life. And I’ve got a strange personality, but fortunately, film requires strange people. So, I’ve got a nice comfy home and this is what I do, and I’m really happy with that. When I know I’m getting up to work with Ridley [director Ridley Scott], I know all the time and effort that he would have put into whatever we’re about to shoot that day. To me, it’s all just a great privilege, and every day I look around and thank the Lord that it’s still going on.

DW: Me, too.

Category: Movies


 

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