Development for the film initially began in 2000, when Universal Pictures
and Imagine Entertainment
purchased the rights to a New York
magazine story about the rise and fall of Lucas. Two years later, screenwriter Steven Zaillian
introduced a 170-page scriptment
to Scott. Original production plans were to commence in Toronto
for budget purposes; however, production eventually relocated permanently to New York City. Because of the film's rising budget Universal canceled production in 2004. After negotiations with Terry George
, it was later revived with Scott at the helm in March 2005. Principal photography commenced over a period of five months from July to December 2006; filming took place throughout New York City
and concluded in Thailand
premiered in New York on October 20, 2007, and was released in the United States and Canada on November 2. The film was well received by most film critics, and grossed over US$266.5 million worldwide, with domestic grosses standing at $130.1 million. Many of the people portrayed, including Roberts and Lucas, have stated that the film took much creative license with the story, and three former DEA
agents sued Universal claiming the agency's portrayal was demoralizing. American Gangster
was nominated for twenty-one awards, including two Oscar
nominations for Best Art Direction
and Best Supporting Actress
(Ruby Dee), and won three including a Screen Actors Guild Award
for Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role for Dee.
In 1968, Frank Lucas
is the right-hand man of Harlem
mob boss Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson
. When Johnson dies of a heart attack, Frank enters the heroin
trade, buying directly from producers in Thailand
and smuggling it into the U.S. through returning Vietnam War
servicemen. Frank sells his heroin under the brand "Blue Magic", whose affordability and purity make it incredibly popular, eliminating much of his competition.
detective and aspiring lawyer Richie Roberts
is ostracized in his precinct after handing in almost $1 million that he found in a mobster's car. After his outcasted and addicted partner overdoses on Blue Magic, Captain Lou Toback puts Roberts in charge of a special task force that targets major local drug suppliers. Roberts is also depicted having a bitter divorce
battle with his ex-wife over his infidelity
Frank's heroin racket prospers; he eventually sells Blue Magic wholesale to many dealers in the New York Tri-State Area and expands his distribution through other criminal organisations. With this monopoly, Frank becomes Harlem's top crime lord, opening legitimate business fronts and maintaining a low profile, while befriending politicians and famous celebrities such as Joe Louis
. He buys a mansion for his mother and recruits his five brothers as his lieutenants. Frank eventually falls in love with and marries Eva, a Puerto Rican
beauty queen. He attends the Fight of the Century
with her, where Roberts spots Frank, notices he has better seats than the Italian mobsters, and begins investigating him. Frank also comes to odds with competing local gangster Nicky Barnes
; corrupt NYPD
detective Nick Trupo, who is among many people Frank is forced to bribe; and the Corsican mafia
, who unsuccessfully attempt to assassinate Frank and his wife for putting them out of business.
One night, Roberts' detectives witness one of Frank's cousins, Jimmy Zee, shoot his girlfriend; he becomes their informant
in lieu of being convicted. They make Jimmy wear a wire
, through which they learn that Frank has negotiated one final shipment of heroin after the fall of Saigon
. They identify and search one of the last planes carrying Lucas' stock, discovering that it is being smuggled through the coffins of dead servicemen. They follow the drugs into Newark's projects and obtain a warrant
to raid Frank's heroin processing facility, which results in the arrest of Frank's brother Huey. They then arrest the other four brothers, and finally Frank himself.
During a trial against Frank, Roberts offers him a chance at leniency if he will help him expose corrupt police officers, to which Frank agrees. Following Frank's cooperation, three-quarters of the New York DEA
and many NYPD officers are arrested and convicted, while Trupo commits suicide. Roberts becomes a defense attorney and has Frank as his first client. Frank is sentenced to 70 years in prison, of which he serves 15 years and is released in 1991.
(pictured here in 2006) worked with director Ridley Scott on the film's script.
In 2000, Universal Pictures
and Imagine Entertainment
purchased the rights to "The Return of Superfly", by Mark Jacobson
, an article published in New York
magazine story about the rise and fall of the 1970s heroin kingpin Frank Lucas
In 2002, screenwriter Steven Zaillian
brought a 170-page script to director Ridley Scott
, who expressed interest in making two films from it. However, Scott did not immediately pursue the project, choosing to make Kingdom of Heaven
instead. In November 2003, Universal and Imagine entered negotiations with Brian De Palma
to direct Tru Blu
, with a script by Zaillian based on the life of Frank Lucas.
Zaillian interpreted the account as one of "American business and race", focusing the script thematically on corporate business.
Production was initially slated for a spring 2004 start.
In March 2004, the studio entered new negotiations with Antoine Fuqua
to direct, as well as Denzel Washington
to star in the film as Frank Lucas.
The following May, Benicio del Toro
entered negotiations to star as Detective Richie Roberts, who brought down Lucas. Production of Tru Blu
was reset to begin in early fall 2004, with the film slated for a release date of June 3, 2005.
In September 2004, Dania Ramirez
entered negotiations to join the cast of the film, now titled American Gangster
Universal Pictures reported that it greenlit American Gangster
with a budget of $80 million, which escalated to $93 million, with $10 million for development costs and $3 million for the delay of the production start date. Sources close to the director insist that the budget was $93 million from the beginning. The studio also sought for American Gangster
to be produced in Toronto rather than New York City to save money, but Fuqua resisted the re-location. The studio's parent company General Electric
received tax credits
in New York City, so production was moved to the city. This change increased the budget to $98 million. Fuqua's camp insisted that it was seeking ways to reduce the budget, but the studio argued about several aspects of the project under him. The director had wanted to film a Vietnam sequence in Thailand and to cast notable names such as Ray Liotta
and John C. Reilly
in minor roles. To add to the studio's budgetary concerns, Fuqua was rewriting the script during the pre-production process. The director did not have a shot-list, final locations, and supporting actors signed to initiate production.
Fuqua was fired on October 1, 2004, four weeks before principal photography would begin.
The studio cited creative differences for its action.
After Fuqua's departure, the studio met with Peter Berg
to take over directing the film, and Denzel Washington had approved of the choice.
Due to the search potentially escalating a budget already in the US$80 million range and the difficulty in recouping the amount based on the film's subject matter, Universal canceled production of American Gangster
, citing time constraints and creative elements.
The cancellation cost the studio $30 million, of which $20 million went to Washington and $5 million went to del Toro due to their pay or play contracts
"When I met Frank, I really understood what I saw as the arc of the character. He wears nice clothes and drives fancy cars and all that, so if that means glorifying it I guess that's the case. But for me I was looking at the arc of the character, and he don't look that glorious right now."
—Denzel Washington discussing the arc of Frank Lucas
In March 2005, American Gangster
was revived as Universal and Imagine entered negotiations with Terry George
to revise Zaillian's script and direct the film, which was to be financed with a target budget of US$50 million. Will Smith
was approached to replace Washington as Frank Lucas, though an offer would be postponed until George completed his revision of the script.
George cut many key scenes, characters and Asian locations to reduce costs, but the project failed to progress given financial problems and producer Grazer feeling they "couldn't make it right" without the removed material.
After Scott and Zaillian met on another project, Zaillian brought up the "Gangster" project again with Scott, who decided he was ready to do it. Producer Brian Grazer
and Imagine executive Jim Whitaker decided against pursuing George's attempt and to return to Zaillian's vision.
In February 2006, Ridley Scott
entered talks with the studio to take over American Gangster
from George, returning to Zaillian's draft as the film's basis. Washington returned to his role as Lucas, and Russell Crowe
was attached to star as Roberts.
Crowe was drawn to the project based on his previous work with the director on Gladiator
and A Good Year
Washington wanted to work with Crowe again, after 1995's Virtuosity
Production was slated for summer 2006.
Scott had discussed the script with Crowe as they worked on A Good Year
in France, and they sought to take on the project. The director reviewed Zaillian's script, Terry George's rewrite, and a revision by Richard Price
during the project's incarnation with director Antoine Fuqua. Scott preferred Zaillian's approach and chose to follow it. The director encountered a challenge in the script since the characters Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts do not encounter each other until twenty minutes before the end of the film. The director sought to flesh out the private universes of these characters, which would evolve, and to have scenes cut between the two characters to provide a balance. Elements such as Frank Lucas's interaction with his family and Richie Roberts's dysfunctional marriage were written to add to the characters' backgrounds.
The rappers T.I.
, and Common
were added to the cast to appeal to younger audiences.
Many abandoned buildings in Harlem
were shot, to give an accurate and authentic depiction of the area in the 1970s.
Scott chose to direct American Gangster
by highlighting the paradoxical values of Frank Lucas and Richie Roberts. The film somewhat focuses on the comparatively ethical business practices of the "wicked gangster" and the womanizing and failed marriage of the "do-gooder" police detective. Washington, who was not normally a fan of gangster films, chose to portray Lucas when he saw "the arc of the character", which ended by showing the prices that Lucas paid for his actions.
To prepare for their roles, the actors met the actual persons. In addition, Washington took on Lucas' Southern accent, and Crowe practiced to match Roberts's manner of speaking and body language, requesting tape recordings of Roberts to assist in his preparation.
The following March, the studio rehired Zaillian to rewrite the script for American Gangster
The budget had escalated to $100 million, which Grazer stated was unexpected given "It's not a high-concept
comedy, it's not a fantasy movie, it's not a four-quadrant movie
Grazer and Scott still had to pay back the studio $3 million for a budget overrun
Principal photography took place in several location throughout New York, including the Brooklyn Navy Yard
began in July 2006 in New York City
. American Gangster
was filmed over a period of approximately four months in over 180 different locations, most of them across New York; it set the record for containing the highest number of filming locations of a movie.
Two months were spent in New York, with all the city's five boroughs
being used. Approximately fifty to sixty locations were set in Harlem alone. While in the neighbourhood, Scott stated that he found several interiors that had been untouched since the 1940s.
According to production designer Arthur Max, exhaustive location scouting
was done to find parts of New York that could still resemble the city of the early 1970s, filming Lucas' headquarters at 116th Street
20 blocks north, on 136th Street.
In his interview with ComingSoon.net
, Scott stated that "[he] just walked in [...] and [...] just sho[o]t in the house." Several gas masks
were brought by producers due to health hazards and sanitary concerns existing in the buildings. Scott found filming in Harlem to be difficult, commenting that the rapid gentrification
in Harlem provided poor opportunities for shooting angles. Hand-held cameras
were extensively used to depict a "guerrilla filmmaking
Using his experience from visiting New York in the same time period in which the film's story took place, Scott sought to downplay a "Beatles
" atmosphere to the film and to instead create a shabbier atmosphere, saying that "Harlem was really, really shabby, beautiful brownstones
Production and costume design was emphasized, transforming the location into the rundown streets of upper Manhattan from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Denzel Washington, as Frank Lucas, went through 64 different costume changes.
In 2006, Greg Calloway
was approached by producers to produce a soundtrack for the film. He presented the idea to Atlantic Records
chairman Craig Kallman
, and one of the company's artists, T.I.
, got an acting role in the film. However, the deal did not go further because Universal Pictures owned the rights to the film; "It was a Universal film and they were not going to give the soundtrack to WMG
" (Atlantic's parent company).
Thus Scott brought back Marc Streitenfeld
, who had worked with him in A Good Year
. The composer stated that "the overall tone needed to be something bigger and darker" given the characters' strong personalities, and while not being the original intention, he added shades of blues
and soul music
to fit the 1970s setting.
The musical score for American Gangster
was recorded between April and May 2007 by Streitenfeld, with the help of orchestrator Bruce Fowler and conductor Mike Nowak, using an 80-piece orchestra recorded in sections as well as acoustic pre-records, performed by Streitenfeld himself. Additional score material was composed and recorded by Hank Shocklee
The official soundtrack album for American Gangster
was released by Def Jam Recordings
within a week of the film's release. In addition to Streitenfeld and Shocklee's score material, the soundtrack album also features songs influenced by music in the 1960s and 1970s, including from blues and soul musicians such as Bobby Womack
, The Staple Singers
, Sam & Dave
, and John Lee Hooker
Grazer stated that "I wanted to introduce a visual and sonic world that is a contained entity of the '70s", and Scott felt it was vital to have "the brand of music that was Harlem at the time."
Denzel Washington pressed Grazer into inviting rapper Jay-Z
to write the film's score, but the producer "just didn't think there'd be enough for Jay-Z to do" given the intentions to do a soundtrack filled with 1970s music.
The film's trailer had already used Jay-Z's "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)", and the rapper was invited to an advanced screening. The film had a profound resonance on the musician, who decided to create a concept album, also entitled American Gangster
The rapper recorded tracks that were prompted by specific scenes in the film. It was speculated that the album's release in conjunction with the film would attract a young audience and help Universal Pictures generate profits to recover from the film's troubled development history.
According to Jay-Z:
"It was like I was watching the film, and putting it on pause, and giving a back story to the story. It immediately clicked with me. Like Scarface
or any one of those films, you take the good out of it, and you can see it as an inspiring film."
premiered in Harlem
at the Apollo Theater
on October 20, 2007.
Over two weeks before the release of American Gangster
, a screener
for the film leaked online.
The film debuted in the United States and Canada on November 2, 2007 in 3,054 theaters.
In its opening weekend in the United States and Canada, it grossed an estimated $43.6 million, averaging $14,264 per theater, placing the film first in the weekend box office.
It marked the biggest opening weekend out of any film in both Washington and Crowe's careers.
In its second week, grosses declined by 44.8 percent to $24 million, being beaten out by Bee Movie
In contrast by its third week, screenings for American Gangster
increased to 3,110 theaters as the film surpassed the $100 million mark.American Gangster
finished its box office run in North America with $130,164,645.
The film experienced similar success overseas. American Gangster
was released in the United Kingdom on November 16, and became the highest-grossing film of the week, garnering £2.6 million ($5.3 million) in the box office.
It repeated the feat in its second week, grossing an estimated £1.82 million ($3.7 million) at the box office and beating out Beowulf
two consecutive times.
The weekend of November 16–18 saw American Gangster
take $14.7 million from fourteen territories internationally. At the same time, American Gangster
expanded in the European market; it received $2.8 million from 366 theaters in Germany and $3.6 million from 366 screens in France during its opening weekend.
Releases followed in Norway and Sweden the succeeding week, where it earned $392,608 and $465,238 from thirty-seven and fifty-nine theaters, respectively.
The film was released in the United Arab Emirates during the film's sixth week and grossed a modest $281,922 at the box office during its first week in the emirate. Similarly, it earned $6.9 million in international markets during its sixth week, adding the total at the time to $40.9 million.
By January 25, 2008, American Gangster
opened in thirty-seven markets, bringing international grosses to $93 million.
In February, screenings for the film debuted in Mexico—with a modest $820,482 opening weekend—and Japan, where it opened at the box office with $2.3 million, landing in second place. American Gangster
grossed over $266.5 million worldwide at the box office, with international grosses making up 51 percent ($136.3 million). It ranked as the 19th highest-grossing film of 2007 both domestically and worldwide.
was released in DVD and HD DVD
format on February 19, 2008. The home release included an unrated extended version of the film, featuring 18 additional minutes and an alternative ending.
The film topped both the DVD sales charts with 4 million units during its first week in stores, more than three times as many copies as second place Michael Clayton
, and the rental charts. American Gangster
ended up as the 14th best-selling DVD of 2008.
It also topped the high-definition charts despite being released in the same week Toshiba
announced it would discontinue the HD DVD format.
On October 14, the film saw its release on Blu-ray
Review aggregate Rotten Tomatoes
reports that 81% of critics have given the film a positive review based on 216 reviews, with a rating average of 7.00/10, with the consensus being: "American Gangster
is a gritty and entertaining throwback to classic gangster films, with its lead performers firing on all cylinders."
, which assigns a weighted mean
score out of 100 to reviews from film critics, the film has a score of 76 based on 38 reviews.
"Like many moviemakers [...], Mr. Scott loves his bad guy too much. And by turning Lucas into a figure who seduces instead of repels, an object of directorial fetishism and a token of black resistance, however hollow, he encourages us to submit as well. Part of this is structural and economic: blood and nihilism are always better sells than misery and hopelessness. Yet there's also a historical dimension because when Lucas strolls down a fast-emptying Harlem street after putting a bullet into another man's head and the camera pulls back for the long view, you are transported into the realm of myth. Once, another gunman, or the director, might have taken direct aim at Lucas. But the world belongs to gangsters now, not cowboys."
—Manohla Dargis of The New York Times
of the Chicago Sun-Times
gave the film a perfect four-star rating and opined, "This is an engrossing story, told smoothly and well." Ebert also praised Crowe's performance, saying that his contribution to the storytelling was "enormous".
Paul Byrnes of The Sydney Morning Herald
felt that American Gangster
was "one of the most intelligent gangster films in years" and expressed that the film offers "the spectacle of grand themes and two bigger-than-life characters played by two of the best actors in cinema." Concluding his review, Byrnes gave the film four out of four stars.
's Jim "Stax" Vejvoda rated the film four out of five stars, praising the acting—particularly of the two protagonists, "both dynamic presences on-screen, with neither actor outweighing the other's importance to the story"—and declaring that despite being preceded by other gangster stories such as Scarface
and The Sopranos
, American Gangster
managed to justify its existence with "emphasis on the human and class elements of the story".
Manohla Dargis of The New York Times
strongly commended the film, opining that "greatness hovers just outside American Gangster
." She continued: "It's a seductive package, crammed with all the on-screen and off-screen talent that big-studio money can buy, and filled with old soul and remixed funk that evoke the city back in the day, when heroin turned poor streets white and sometimes red."
These sentiments were echoed by Sukhdev Sandhu of The Telegraph
, who asserted that the storyline was "amazing".
In comparison, some reviewers were more critical of American Gangster
. Jonathan Crocker of Time Out London
was polarized with the film, criticizing its aesthetics. In his review, he wrote, "Scott's meticulous aesthetics can't touch the urban texture and deep focus of The French Connection
, The Godfather
and Prince of the City
– all looming heavily in intertextual nods." In contrast, Crocker praised Washington's acting, writing, "He's immense: centering every scene with tractor-beam charisma, that dangerous, easy charm hovering between a luxury smile or blazing violence." In conclusion, Crocker gave the film three out of five stars.
Similarly, Owen Gleiberman of Entertainment Weekly
gave the film a 'C-' grade, expressing that American Gangster
is "never dull, but it could have used more good old-fashioned melodramatic intrigue." Gleiberman found Washington's performance to have "a ghastly ingenuity". Empire'
s Ian Freer rated the film three stars out of five; he stated that it was "undeniably enjoyable" and praised the cast, but also noted that he felt that "very little in the movie feels fresh, re-treading scenes, riffs and imagery from the whole history of crime flicks" and that the film did not explore enough of Lucas' story and Scott's visual imagination.
journalist Nick Schager harshly criticized the film, giving the film a one out of four stars rating. Schager remarked that the film was "dumb as a rock", and that it was "far too convinced of its import to be any fun."
Giving American Gangster
a two out of five stars, Peter Bradshaw
of The Guardian
was disappointed with Washington's acting, asserting, "He doesn't seem to relax and enjoy himself in the role, or even inhabit it very satisfyingly." He resumed: "He never has the menace of his dirty cop in Training Day
, and we don't see anything like the transformation from street-hustler to leader in Malcolm X
. That shoulder-shimmying swagger is rarely seen, and the brand-classic robes of American Gangster
sit on him heavily."
Accuracy of the film
In an interview with MSNBC
, Lucas expressed his excitement about the film and amazement at Denzel Washington's portrayal.
However, Lucas admitted to several news outlets that only a small portion of the film was true,
and that much of it was fabricated for dramatic effect.
In addition, Richie Roberts
criticized the film for portraying him in a custody battle while in real life he never had a child. Roberts criticized the portrayal of Lucas, describing it as "almost noble".
Sterling Johnson Jr.
, a federal judge who served as a special narcotics prosecutor for the United States District Court for the Eastern District of New York
and assisted the arrest and trial of Lucas, described the film as "one percent reality and ninety-nine percent Hollywood." In addition, Johnson described the real-life Lucas as "illiterate, vicious, violent, and everything Denzel Washington was not."
agents Jack Toal, Gregory Korniloff, and Louis Diaz filed a lawsuit against Universal saying that the events in the film were fictionalized and that the film defamed
them and hundreds of other agents.
The lawsuit was eventually dismissed by US District Judge Colleen McMahon. While McMahon noted that the intertitle
that appears at the end of the film, stating that Lucas' collaboration led to the arrest of many corrupt DEA agents, was "wholly inaccurate", in that Lucas' cooperation did not lead to the convictions, and admonished that "It would behoove a major corporation like Universal (which is owned by a major news organization, NBC) not to put inaccurate statements at the end of popular films", she stated that the film failed to meet legal standards of defamation because it failed to "show a single person who is identifiable as a DEA agent".
Many of Lucas' other claims, as presented in the film, have also been called into question, such as being the right-hand man of Bumpy Johnson
, rising above the power of the Mafia and Nicky Barnes
, and that he was the mastermind behind the Golden Triangle
heroin connection of the 1970s. Ron Chepesiuk, a biographer of Frank Lucas, deemed the story as a myth. Associated Press
entertainment writer Frank Coyle noted that "this mess happened partly because journalists have been relying on secondary sources removed from the actual events."
- ^ Fictionalized version of Julianna Farrait-Rodriguez
- ^ Fictionalized version of Leslie "Ike" Atkinson
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