The true story behind Denzel Washington’s ‘American Gangster’
(Credit: Netflix)


The true story behind Denzel Washington's 'American Gangster'

Directed by Ridley Scott and starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, the gritty American Gangster explores the underworld of drug trafficking and organised crime in 1970s Harlem. The fact that it is written by Steven Zaillian (the creator of Ripley) speaks volumes about its neo-noir goodness. However, what many viewers may not realise is that the film is based on the true story of one of America’s most notorious criminals: Frank Lucas.

American Gangster follows the rise and fall of Frank Lucas, a real-life drug lord who rose to notoriety in 1970s Harlem. Lucas (played by Denzel Washington) builds a heroin empire by smuggling drugs from Southeast Asia. While Lucas is both charismatic and ruthless, Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) represents dogged law enforcement, who spends most of the film trying to bring Lucas down.

The real Frank Lucas was born in La Grange, North Carolina, in 1930. He grew up in poverty, but from a young age, he showed a remarkable aptitude for business. After moving to Harlem in the 1940s, Lucas quickly became immersed in the city’s vibrant but dangerous street culture. It wasn’t long before he began working for one of Harlem’s most powerful crime bosses, Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson.

Under Johnson’s tutelage, Lucas learned the ins and outs of the drug trade. But it wasn’t until Johnson died in 1968 that Lucas saw an opportunity to seize control of Harlem’s heroin market for himself. With a keen business sense and a willingness to be pitiless, Lucas quickly rose to prominence as one of the most powerful drug lords in New York City.

What set Lucas apart from his competitors was his innovative approach to drug trafficking. Instead of relying on traditional smuggling routes controlled by the Italian Mafia, Lucas established his supply chain directly from Southeast Asia. He cut out the intermediaries and smuggled pure heroin, which he named ‘Blue Magic’ into the United States using the coffins of deceased American servicemen during the Vietnam War.

Lucas’s operation was ruthlessly efficient, and he quickly amassed a fortune estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars. He lived a lavish lifestyle, flaunting his wealth with flashy cars, designer clothes, and extravagant parties. And this is how law enforcement started to take notice of Lucas’s operation. Detective Richie Roberts, an officer with the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office, made it his mission to bring down Lucas’s empire. He assembled a team of dedicated investigators to gather evidence against him. 

In 1975, Lucas was finally arrested and charged with multiple counts of drug trafficking. He was sentenced to 70 years in prison but struck a deal with prosecutors to reduce his sentence in exchange for cooperating with the authorities. Lucas’s testimony helped to convict over 100 of his former associates, effectively dismantling his criminal empire.

But how accurately does American Gangster portray Frank Lucas?

Contrary to the film, Lucas’s ascent was not a solitary journey but rather intertwined with the clandestine operations of Leslie ‘Ike’ Atkinson, a retired Vietnam Army sergeant. It was Atkinson’s network of soldiers that facilitated the smuggling operation to go down as smoothly. Lucas’ role, though significant, was part of a larger web of criminal enterprise orchestrated by Atkinson.

The film’s portrayal of Detective Richie Roberts as the sole architect of Lucas’s downfall is also simplified as it overlooks the collaborative efforts of law enforcement. While Roberts played a pivotal role in securing Lucas’s confession, it was the collective diligence of investigators that took down his empire.

You can watch American Gangster on Netflix and catch the trailer here: