Sin So Clearly Displayed: A Review of American Gangster

Jesus made it very clear, “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:20). He holds us to a standard where “good” simply isn’t enough. So what does this mean, then, for “good” men? What does this mean for the just and upright, the honorable? What does it mean for good cops like Richie Robbins, who once found 5 million dollars and turned in every cent of it? And Richie is an especially worthy cop to mention here. He, along with his team, brought down Harlem’s most dangerous drug lord and crime boss: Frank Lucas. Their story is the highlight of the big screen this fall as Ridley Scott’s latest film American Gangster has stormed the box office.

This is an amazingly real movie. Scott’s directorial gifts are in full display as he brings this true story to the big screen in not only epic proportions but with gritty realism and graphic detail (more on this in a moment). The movie chronicles the rise and fall of the Frank Lucas drug empire, and the cop that brought him down. The movie revels in contrasts. So in a brilliant scene we get the stark contrast between Frank Lucas’ family thanksgiving meal and the sickening decay of the drug users he has made his money off of. It is a scene of love and warmth contrasted with coldness and death. This highlights even more the contrast within Frank Lucas himself. Here is a man who on the one hand loves his family and cares so deeply about their preservation that he will do anything for them. He teaches his brothers about the important features of business: integrity, honesty, and family. And yet in the same scene he gets up from their coffee shop table, walks across the street and blows a hole in a man’s head for not paying for his drugs. Frank’s success, which is built off of evil, is also contrasted with Richie’s meager life, which is the result of honesty. The two live in different worlds, but just how different are they?

In what is surely one of the most striking scenes in the movie we see Richie Robbins – the good cop – battling for custody of his son. Across the isle sits his ex-wife and it is from her very lips that we get clued into one of the major themes of this movie. Richie apologizes to her for not being able to financial support their family, but begs her not to take his son away. He claims that he should not be punished for being “honest.” What he implies here is that she is mad at him for not taking bribes or drug money (like all the other cops in New Jersey and New York).

Her response is astounding. “You think you’re going to heaven for being honest,” she yells at Richie, “but you’re going to the same hell” as the dirty cops. Hypocrisy is prevalent throughout the film. As Scott continues to show us the terrible underbelly of the real 1970s drug scene, he joins it with a real picture of the sickness that is sin and total depravity. In this movie even the “good guys” are hell bound. As Christians we know that there is redemption available to those who acknowledge their sin in Christ Jesus. Scott too has an idea about redemption, but he fails to do justice to the reality of sin. No matter how many dirty cops Richie gets put away, no matter how many crime lords he brings down he still has to face up to his own internal sin and his own dishonesty to his ex-wife and son.

I was surprised by this film. It is a thought provoking film, but one whose realistic portrayal, graphic violence and decay makes it at points almost unbearable. As the friend who accompanied me to the movie said, “not a film you enjoy watching, but it is definitely thought provoking.” I couldn’t agree more. I didn’t enjoy watching American Gangster, but I won’t soon forget its themes.

About Dave Dunham

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