Tuesday, November 06, 2007



American Gangster, American Stereotype
Earl Ofari Hutchinson


American Gangster is a big, brash and brilliant cinema tour de force. But it also reinforces a glaring stereotype, in fact, one of America’s most enduring stereotypes, and that’s that the drug problem and by extension drug kingpins come with a black face. There are two telling scenes in American Gangster that drive that point home with a tormenting vengeance.

The first is near the end of the film when intrepid cop Richie Roberts ( Russell Crowe) whose sole mission is to nail black drug lord Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) faces off with the busted Lucas in a police interrogation room. He indignantly lectures Lucas that his dope peddling spread death and destruction that wrecked and ruined hundreds of lives. In the second scene there is a fleeting glimpse of a white GI shooting up heroin in a Bangkok, Thailand honky tonk serviceman’s hang out. Other than that one scene and a flutter look at a white junkie getting whacked by Lucas, there’s absolutely no hint that the drug racket, the gangsters that run it, bribe cops and politicians, and put an army of small time dealers, and bag men and women on the street are anything but African-Americans.

Washington as only he can do with a character such as Lucas invests him with a chilling mix of charm, business savvy and raw brutality. That further reinforces the notion that a black man can be bigger, smarter, and more audacious than the organized crime racketeers that in decades past ran and still largely run the drug trade in America. They are the ones that hold an iron grip on the foreign growers and suppliers, the transport, street distribution, and the network of banks that launder the dirty money.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey on the sex and drug habits of Americans last June further tossed the ugly glare on who controls and who uses drugs in America. The survey found that whites are much more likely to peddle and use drugs than blacks.

Other studies have found roughly equal rates of drug usage by blacks and whites. But what made the CDC survey more eye-catching is that it didn't solely measure generic drug use, but singled out the use of cocaine and street drugs, the kind of drugs that American Gangster depicts the sale of.

The findings fly in the face of the conventional drug war wisdom that blacks use and deal street drugs while whites use trendy, recreational designer drugs, and that these presumably include powder cocaine. That once more calls into question the gaping disparity in drug sentencing between whites and blacks. More than 70 percent of those prosecuted in federal courts for drug possession and sale (mostly small amounts of crack cocaine) and given stiff mandatory sentences are blacks. The Supreme Court has agreed to examine the racial disparities in sentencing.

But that’s the morality tale theme that heavily underpins American Gangster. If you’re black and you use drugs you’ll either die, become a walking zombie, or rot behind bars. And more than likely the guy that sells the junk will skip away scot free, live a princely lifestyle, retire with fabulous wealth and if unlucky enough to get popped cut a deal to rat out crooked cops or competitors. Lucas did just that and, considering the very real death and destruction that he spread, waltzed away with a relative hand slap sentence. Then in what has to rankle and fascinate gives the supreme self-serving rationale for the dirty dealing by wailing if I didn’t do it somebody else would. True to form that’s exactly Lucas’s fall-back cop-out line in American Gangster.

However, the somebody that Lucas suggested would be the drug boss if not him rarely looked like him. In fact, Lucas and his black competitor who has a cameo role in the film, Nicky Barnes, the subject of a recently release documentary, Mr. Untouchable are the rarest of rare birds. Lucas as a black drug boss that supposedly topped the Mafia for control of the drug business in Harlem, through cunning and dumb luck found an opening the Vietnam War, a willing, strategically placed accomplice among the black GIs in Vietnam, and a supplier to get him the drugs and help with the transport.

It all adds up to one thing. The public scapegoat of blacks for America's drug problem during the past two decades has been relentless, and the at all costs hunting down by Richie (Crowe) of Lucas (Washington) in American Gangster is stark testimony to that relentlessness. The greatest fallout from the nation’s hopelessly flawed and failed drug hunt for scapegoats is that it makes it easy for on-the-make politicians to grab votes, garner press attention, and bloat state prison budgets to jail more black offenders, while continuing to feed the illusion tha the drug war is winnable. American Gangster won’t do anything to change that illusion.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press)
hutchinsonreport@aol.com

16 comments:

Anonymous said...

Well, this is BET, and, isn't its mission statment to make blacks look as bad as posible and make money for Viacom? Even if it means making a two bit thug look good?

MustangSallie said...

Sorry, it's based on a "true" story and I didn't have a problem with the movie. Blacks make themselves "look bad" (thugs, drug dealers, whores, etc.) in these music videos. Here we go again . . .were's my violin

Anonymous said...

So your saying white people don't make themselves look bad. I see white people make themsevles look bad everyday. Whores, Drug dealers, thugs,are white just as well, or is it because they are white it doesn't count. Have must have not watched some of the videos which white women are shaking their behind in this mans face.

Mustangsallie said...

EXACTLY - blacks and whites do the same thing, whether in music videos or movies AND I don't have a problem with American Gangstar, just like I didn't have a problem with Boyz in the Hood, Baby Boy, the Dave Chapelle show, etc, etc. We're beating the "same dead horse" as far as I am concern. That's why it's called entertainment. Italians are very well known for playing mob bosses in the movies, that rarely whin as we do. Further more, I'm not being sterotyped in any of these ganster/thug movies. I'm self-assured in who I am. From Whites, I always get the question, "why do YOUR people," NOT "why do YOU."

stifs said...

We Black folks need to calm down. We have a psychosis that is killing Black America and Mr. Hutchinson, you may be spreading the hysteria with this posting. My father was a drug dealer in South Florida in 1970's and it was his decision to bypass ambitions working for corporate America to live a flashy lifestyle with girls, cars and diamonds. American Gangster show not have been produced or shown. I believe it sets back Black America 30 years. This movie gives every Black male reason to think that they are nothing but killers of their fellow man in pursuit of "fame and fortune". Quit editorializing of stuff that makes some in Black America suffer again and again.

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the program and don't feel eligible to comment on its realism, but suffice it to say, drugs are hurting our country and (unfair sentencing notwithstanding) drugs are hurting minority populations disproportionately (see http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov/drugfact/minorities/index.html). This having been said, media images are extremely powerful, and I fully support complaining to the producers of the program if it does in fact contribute to the negative stereotypes of blacks. Putting facts to the side for a moment, I'd rather see a program that challenged America's stereotypes rather than one that played into them.

Anonymous said...

Hutch, you nailed it, however, you'll get resistance from those who refuse to see with their third eye. My concern is with the over-exposure of illegal drugs on the big screen, not just with this movie but several others. Is there a desensitization to the drug scene going on in America similar to the one that went on during the Vietnam War? Poppies are being grown overseas at alarming rates, and trust--they are meant for someone. This is big business. Could our children be the next victims of an even larger and more serious drug epidemic of heroin?

Anonymous said...

No one needs another critic in the world talking bad about a movie that was based on a true story. I never thought you could call that a stereotype but I guess you can since your name is Earl Ofari Hutchinson.

Anonymous said...

Well anonymous you are retarded. Your stupid comments are retarded. They are retarded but not as retarded as you. HAHAHAHA (chuckle quietly).

stifs said...

My friend and author in Las Vegas is writing a book and a screenplay titled, "The Crips, the Bloods, and the Klan" and it chronologizes how the Klan and the powers that be took a break after 1965 Civil Rights Act and let that Civil Rights generation receive affirmative action, fair housing, EEO stuff just to re-mount the horse to go after the children of the civil rights recipients which are children born in the early 1970's and later. It's a perfect plot that introduces crack created in a lab not run by black people, smuggle large quantities of drugs not transported by black people, and glamorize the former with gangsta rap as icing on the cake, not funded, distributed by black people or played on the small number of black radio stations.

So American Gangster is another dose to glamorize fucked up role models that a new generation will idolize. Pissed!

MustangSallie said...

The "Anonymous" who wrote about the other "Anonymous" being retarded, YOU are hilarious! Like the first "Anonymous" I don't understand how a movie based on a true story can be called a sterotype? Anyway, I found the movie entertaining . . .just like "Why Did I Get Married" By the way, was that move a sterotype on black women and men never, really getting along?

The Obenson Report said...

To all those people who so easily dismiss films like these as pure entertainment, you're not considering the bigger picture... the influential, clandestine currents that are covertly shaping the way we see and relate to each other, regardless of race. Films are more than just entertainment. They are also education. Many of us learn about other worlds/cultures/people from the cinema, as opposed to simply engaging each other personally.

It is also worth nothing that when there is a dearth of films in circulation that tell the stories of a group of people, in this case, black people, every film that is distributed showcasing that group, will be subject to extensive and divergent criticism. It should be expected. Whites aren't as invested as we are because the full spectrum of their experiences are on constantly on display at the theatres, and so one film isn't percieved to be near all-encompassing, as is in our case.

The solution? We need to see more films that tell the extremely varied stories of black people primarily.

I host a podcast on black cinema every week, that takes a more critical, academic look at cinema of the Diaspora. You can check it out at www.obensonreport.com.

Cheers to everyone!

Anonymous said...

Mr. Hutchinson, when you start finding racism in everything, people eventually stop listening. Movies, music, or any other form of entertainmnet does not make you look bad, real life incidents like the girl, who was fighting with another girl over a boy, before getting hit by the car driven by one of the girl who was arrested, makes you look bad.

Rasheed

Anonymous said...

I have a message, if you can't stand movies like this, just don't support them. Obviously you went to see the movie knowing what it was about. Did you go to see the movie just so you can complain about how bad it makes Blacks look. You guys are ridiculous, it's like we have to have some sterile image. You complain when people show Blacks as all rich, you say, "he is not keeping it real," you complain when they show Blacks living in the ghetto, you say, "we don't all live in the ghetto." Stop watcing stuff you are offended by. I don't like a show on MTV, instead of comaplining, I simply turn the channel. It's easy, you guys should try it sometime.

Rasheed

stifs said...

Rasheed. I say stop producing them! And turn off MTV, too.

:)

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