Political Film Society - Newsletter #297 - December 30, 2007

December 30, 2007


American GangsterIn the early 1970s, heroin from Southeast Asia follows a specific path to distribution points in New York after a deal is struck between African American Frank Lucas (played by Denzil Washington) and a Southeast Asian heroin kingpin, who in turn pays off members of the air force to fly heroin in a shipment of coffins of dead Americans to Fort Bragg Air Force Base, North Carolina. Once in the United States, the heroin is picked up by a New Jersey-based janitorial company in trashbags and routed for processing to a low-income housing project in Manhattan and thence to the legitimate businesses of Lucas’s five younger brothers, the Country Boys, for distribution under the “brand” name Blue Magic. The New York part of the operation is well known to the police, who extort protection money and, in some cases, seize heroin only to sell it back. In an effort to put the racket out of business, the FBI recruits New Jersey clean-as-a-whistle detective Richie Roberts (played by Russell Crowe) to assemble a special unit in order to discover the distribution chain and arrest the big boys. The result, after much surveillance, is Lucas’s arrest and conviction in 1976 for a seventy-year term. But in a plea bargain, Lucas’s sentence is reduced to fifteen years because he identifies the corrupt NYPD officers involved, who account for three-fourths of the narcotics unit, the largest scandal ever to hit an American police force. Lucas then becomes a free man in 1991. However, the plot, which has garnered a Political Film Society nomination as best film exposé of 2007, is padded with texture throughout 2½ overlong hours--with the sex and violence that today’s young filmviewers demand—including an extended depiction of the tumultuous way in which Lucas rises by cutting out the Mafia middlemen in the drug trade, serving as his own enforcer, and otherwise operating as all things to all people, including taking his pious mother (played by Ruby Dee) to church on Sunday.

A briefer description is provided of Roberts, who accepts a divorce so that his children will be brought up without him, since the tensions of his career are no more compatible with normal family life than those of Lucas, who instead terrifies his wife, Miss Puerto Rico 1970 (played by Lymari Nadal), into remaining with him. Political Film Society awardwinner Stephen Zaillian adapted the screenplay from Mark Jacobsen‘s New York magazine article “The Return of Superfly” (2000) for director Ridley Scott. MH

Political Film Society awardwinner John Sayles has directed yet another small-town slice of life, this time Blacks living in rural Alabama during the 1950s, in Honeydripper. The pace is slow, and every word is spoken as if an epigram. Tyrone Purvis (played by Danny Glover) has retired as a traveling musician to his hometown and has bought Honeydripper, a jukebox beerhall. But he has been unable to make payments because his offering of singer Bertha Mae (played by Mable John) fails to compete with alternative entertainment nearby. Guitar Sam, whom Purvis hires to offer trendy New Orleans rock, fails to show up due to illness. To bail out Sonny Blake (played by Gary Clark, Jr.), in jail for “vagrancy,” in order to masquerade as Guitar Sam, he approaches Sheriff Pugh (played by Stacy Keach), who agrees on three conditions—a $50 payment, a share of the business, and fried chicken prepared on demand by Tyrone’s spouse Delilah (played by Lisa Gay Hamilton). Without a sign of indignation, Purvis agrees. Will the masquerade work instead of a crude con as a backup? Find out in Honeydripper, which does not live up to Sayles’s reputation as the Ken Loach of American film. Nevertheless,the casual way in which Blacks accept racism by focusing on positive aspects of their lives, especially through music, may provide some insight into the resilience of African Americans, particularly in the South. MH