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February 12, 2008
a pairing. Actors Denzel Washington (Training Day) and Russell Crowe
(Gladiator) play two opposing forces in the struggle between an
upwardly mobile black guy and upwardly mobile, distinctly Jewish guy during
the '70s in American Gangster. The black man starts out young, poor,
and country-born and bred; the Jewish man is a cop has a moral rudder that
stays so on course that in order to succeed he joins a secretive special
task force that removes him from his fellow officers who have been
thoroughly corrupted by the drug dealers and who also studies to be a lawyer
so he can eventually leave the force.
Though Crowe's character, detective Richie Roberts, is an outcast cop made
even more notable by openly wearing a Mogen David who stands apart from
other cops (who in those days were primarily Italian and Irish), he's close
enough to the streets to feel a shift of control in the drug underworld.
Roberts believes someone is climbing the rungs above the known Italian Mafia
and suspects that a black power player has come from nowhere to dominate the
Nobody notices that Frank Lucas (Oscar® winner Washington), the quiet
driver/protege to one of the inner city's leading black crime bosses – the
late Bumpy Johnson – has exploited an opening in the power structure to
build his own empire and create his own version of the American Dream.
Through ingenuity and a strict discipline learned from his mother (played by
Ruby Dee, who has garnered a Best Supporting actress nomination for her
work), Lucas sets up his own distribution network for the heroin he brings
in from Vietnam, takes control of the inner-city drug trade, and floods the
streets with a purer product at a better price. Lucas outplays the leading
crime syndicates and becomes not only one of the city's mainline corrupters,
but part of a circle of legit civic superstars.
Yet both Lucas and Roberts share a rigorous ethical code that sets them
apart from their colleagues, making them lone figures on opposite sides of
the law. They become entwined as they approach a confrontation where Lucas
is eventually caught. In an actual ironic turn, Roberts, who is now an
attorney, becomes his lawyer and helps him turn on the corrupt players on
both sides of the law.
Southern black culture, New York cop culture and Roberts' core Jewish ethics
come into play and conflict in this classic cop-vs.-criminal tales deftly
directed by veteran award-winner Ridley Scott. With a spectacular cast that
includes such stars as Josh Brolin (also in Oscar-nominated No Country
for Old Men), Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Armand Assante, and
Ruby Dee, this blistering tale of American entrepreneurship gone awry is
produced by Oscar® winner Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind) and Scott
from a screenplay by Academy Award® winner Steven Zaillian (Schindler's
a press conference, both Washington and Crowe fielded questions from a small
group of journalists. And with the awards season in play, both Washington
(for his directorial work in a film The Great Debaters released in
time for the Oscars) and American Gangster are getting further
attention, with its DVD version being released this February.
There is a delicate balance between good and evil in both of your
Denzel Washington: Now, who was the good guy and who was the evil
guy? [laughs]. That's the delicate balance.
The line runs parallel between both of them.
Denzel Washington: Right. And there you have it [laughs]. The
cord runs parallel to both [of us]. Jump in there, Russell.
Russell Crowe: Well, I think that's one of the fascinating things
about the two characters and about the story itself: that none of that is
clear. There's not a clear singular morality. And when you get the
opportunity to play that sort of thing, which is nothing more than reality
and humanity as it exists, it's just a bit of fun.
You know, Richie's an honest guy and all that sort of thing, but as his
ex-wife plays him out in the court, she says, “You're only honest in one
area. You try and buy yourself favors for all the shit that you do.”
[Referring to his philandering and dodging of support payments]. I just
think that's an honest appraisal of who he was at that time. But it also
[spills over] into that area of discussion: why people go bad in the first
place, or what was the process [that led] Frank Lucas to become a drug
If Frank Lucas had been befriended by somebody else and educated in a
different area, he might have gotten in a situation where a university was
named after him. He was a very smart guy and used things that he had
learned to the best of his ability to change his life and change the life of
his family at that time. But it just happened to be that Bumpy Johnson was
his teacher. We were joking about doing his sort of course work on the
street. [He got a] PhD in criminality under Bumpy Johnson.
Denzel Washington: Yeah [laughs].
Ironically there's a different reaction to a rapper making a gangster
album and an actor making a gangster movie. In fact, this movie even has a
few rappers in it – RZA, Common, and T.I.
Denzel Washington: What do you mean; what's the difference?
people like Al Sharpton and Oprah Winfrey have been speaking out against the
violence and language in hip hop; rappers have a certain approach to being a
gangster and get condemned for it. But in gangster movies, the actors are
praised. Why is there a difference?
Denzel Washington: In 2005 I did Julius Caesar, so whenever
any rapper is ready to do some Shakespeare, I'll be there. I can do both. So
can they – if they [have the talent]. There is the difference. This is just
one movie. It's not the only movie I've made. I'm not knocking rappers
Russell Crowe: I think what he was actually getting to, which is
really pretty cool, is that he's saying that a guy comes out and he sings a
song about his lot as a gangster or what his experience was, he puts it on a
record, and people get down on him. But you and me, we make a movie about
you being a gangster and we get praised for it from a creative point of
Denzel Washington: Yeah. Some rappers who have made gangster albums
have gotten praise for it too. Some real good ones. Really good ones.
AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted [by Ice Cube] is still one of my favorite
Russell Crowe: Is it the criminality that people are getting upset
about with the music, or is it sort of like, the attitude? A male-female
attitude kind of thing, you know. I mean, there's some of that sort of
stuff, where they're actually literally singing praises of gun worship, as
opposed to a movie that plays out in front of you and a story that's being
told... this is how something actually really happened.
Denzel Washington: And these are the consequences...
Russell Crowe: There's definitely a difference there.
There are parallels between what happened with the Vietnam War and now
with the Iraq war. We're bringing back a new batch of soldiers who are
having mental problems that are leading to drugs and other abuses. What is
your take on the new means of distribution of drugs and about who is
becoming the new American gangster in this society?
Russell Crowe: Over to you...
Denzel Washington: [laughing uproariously]. Who is the new
American gangster? Oh man. They get voted in now... Next question.
far back as Naked City, to The Godfather and The Prince of
the City, there has been a strong tradition of New York City crime
stories that are powerfully atmospheric. Where do you think American
Gangster fits into that cinematic lineage?
Denzel Washington: Of all those films you mentioned there are no
black people in any of them. Well, I can say for one [thing]. This is a
Harlem story. This is about a guy who was a kingpin, but a different
kingpin. I think the situation is basically the same. They were obviously
different movies, but the business was the same, if it was based on the
heroin business. As we were talking earlier, I guess to a degree it's a
genre. There are certain things that are similar in those kinds of films,
but this one in particular [is] dealing with a guy from uptown.
Director Ridley Scott has said that Frank Lucas was a very disturbed
man and that he was on the set all the time. Scott said it would be fair to
describe him as a sociopath. What was your interpretation of him; was there
something to that description?
Denzel Washington: [I would say] "Sociopath."
Isn't that one of the worst things you can say about someone?
Denzel Washington: I wouldn't say that about Frank. I didn't find
that to be true. I think that as Russell was saying earlier, he was a man
without a formal education. He's a man who at the age of six witnessed his
cousin murdered by sociopaths.
Russell Crowe: In uniform.
Denzel Washington: In uniform. Elected officials. And that changed
his life. From a very young age he began to steal and worked his way up the
line. He came to New York and the most notorious gangster in Harlem [Bumpy
Johnson, played by an uncredited Clarence Williams III], recognized the
talent, if you will, in this young kid, and continued to train him. He was
on the wrong side of the tracks, but he was a brilliant student, and became
a master of the business that he was in.
You know, it's a dirty business. And he's definitely a criminal. He's
responsible for the death of many people, so I don't want to just say that
he's a product of his environment. But I guess to a degree we all are, and
as Russell said, I think had he got a formal education; had he gone in
another direction, had he had different influences, I think he still would
have been a leader or a very successful man. You know, he has a 10 or
12-year-old son now who's brilliant.
Crowe: That's a sort of easy one to take head-on, because quite frankly,
large parts of Frank Lucas's life were very glamorous – the night clubs,
hanging out with Wilt Chamberlain, sports figures and celebrities of the
time. His public persona as such was the guy that ran this nightclub.
Everything else that fell down from that was not known. Wilt Chamberlain or
any of these celebrities that were hanging out with him wouldn't have known
that Frank was turning over a couple of hundred keys every month in heroin.
You know what I mean?
Denzel Washington: And they may have known, but he still had the club
where the chicks were [laughter].
Denzel, as a New Yorker, were you familiar with the story of Bumpy
Johnson and Nicky Barnes, and did you learn anything by actually playing
Denzel Washington: I think everybody heard about Nicky Barnes [a
flamboyant drug kingpin that got his supply from Lucas], and again it's a
testament to Frank's business sense. You never heard about Frank Lucas.
Nicky Barnes bought his dope from Frank Lucas, a lot of it. So people were
more interested in being in front of the camera and some more in just being
behind, and Frank was many layers removed from the streets.
New York today seems to be a lot less corrupt. Maybe I won't say less
corrupt but maybe corrupt in other ways.
Denzel Washington: You don't live here [laughs].
Let me put it another way. Crime is supposedly down a lot more nowadays,
but the '70s was a heightened period of corruption and of problems in terms
of the police and the gangsters. What are your insights into the gangsters
and police of the day?
Denzel Washington: [To Crowe] You know more about the
Russell Crowe: I get all the shitty ones...
Denzel Washington: Maybe it's cliché, but I think there was more
honor among thieves in those days. There was a sort of cult of ethics. We
didn't hear about Frank killing kids and that kind of thing, and drive-bys
and all of that. He's a very interesting man. He was very much a family man,
and believed in sitting down at Thanksgiving with the family and all of
that. He was in the drug business. I don't think he looked at himself as a
killer or even a criminal. He was in a business, he sold the product, and he
did a good job at it.
Crowe: I don't think anybody wants zealotry in their police force.
There's always got to be room for what you might call benign corruption.
Nobody blames a man who steals food to feed his starving children. On the
other hand, somebody who picks up a badge and takes an oath to serve and
protect – we do expect a certain level of essential honesty.
I mean, you're going to be put in situations as a policeman that require you
to function and observe without necessarily getting involved, and taking the
money from drug operations and all that sort of stuff is something that goes
past what most of us in society would expect a policeman should do.
The particular time we're talking about – and this has happened in most
countries around the world, most western countries where drugs just suddenly
became a gigantic thing – suddenly the money you're talking about wasn't
small. It was gigantic. You went from talking in terms of tens of thousands
to hundreds of millions. That temptation hits the police force at the same
time as the temptation to take those drugs that are readily available hits
the people on the streets.
So no doubt, there is always going to be that kind of situation where that
happened, where the money was just too strong. And greed overtook a lot of
people. But that's one of the byproducts of Frank Lucas's life that we've
got to look at as well.
A lot of stuff got cleaned up because of Frank Lucas. Lucas turned state's
evidence and 75% of the people in the Special Investigations Unit got busted
because they were on the take. So I think that there is the key for the
friendship that [eventually] existed between Richie and Frank. They did a
thing together, post Frank's arrest, which bonded them together as men, and
that bond still exists today.
You both have had accolades for your work and done a lot of it
cinematically. What inspires you still to get up every day and do the work
that you do?
Washington: Good question. Professionally now, I've sort of started to
head in another direction. Getting behind the camera – the second film I've
directed now – and I'm sure that's my new career. But on a more basic level,
I was just watching Russell with his little boy up front. That's part of the
reason – not that I got up every morning. I had to go to work so we could
eat – but there's a lot of joy in that, just watching his face, playing with
his son and his son just looking at dad.
What we do is like... Acting for me is making a living. It's not my life,
you know. My children and my family – that's life. The miracle of life. I'll
get up every morning, God willing, for that.
Russell Crowe: I've always seen it to be a privilege to make movies.
It's a really expensive, creative medium and people around me to do it.
There are things that I can do as an actor that I couldn't do in any other
form of life, and I've got a strange personality. But film requires strange
people, so I've got a nice comfy home.
That's what I do and I'm really happy with that. And when I know I'm getting
up to go to work with Ridley and I know the time and effort he would have
put into whatever it is that we're about to shoot that day, to me it's just
a great privilege. Every day I kind of look around and thank the Lord that
it's still going on, and I just get to work and do the thing I'm doing that
Denzel Washington: Yeah, me too.
You two had worked together in an earlier movie, the sci-fi film,
Russell Crowe: Yes, a wonderful movie [laughter from Washington].
Just a momentary lapse, wasn't it? [more laughter] I know it's one of
your favorites. We were both young then. Young and innocent... [It had
garnered nothing but bad reviews at the time.]
Denzel Washington: Not after that movie [laughter].
So did you discuss working together again, and how was it this time
around with both of you having won Oscars?
Russell Crowe: We didn't talk about it at all. Brian [Grazer, the
producer] was talking to me about it and saying there was a chance we could
put it back together if we got X amount of people interested in it, so
that's how the pursuit began, and I heard that Denzel was happy with the
idea of doing it with me and obviously I was happy that I was doing it with
him. So we didn't talk about it until we were on the set. “Hello mate. How
you doing? Good to see you again.” And we were shooting that day. So...
you reach a certain plateau as an actor and have the accolades, you become a
celebrated talent who doesn't need to do what the agents and studio execs
want you to do. If you could defy the agents and do projects that would blow
our minds what would you choose and why?
Russell Crowe: You are saying we occasionally do work that our agents
want us to do... [laughs]
Denzel Washington: First of all, my agent works for me. So he does
what I say, I don't do what he says. We start there...
Russell Crowe: If he did what [his agent] wanted him to do, he would
have done some funky [Denzel drowns him out with laughter].
Denzel Washington: But having a very good agent, you know, will help
protect you from... he will sift through a lot of stuff beforehand.
Russell Crowe: You watch a TV show that you just might want to be a
guest on. I'd like to do Sex and the City. And there's a TV show I'd
like to do also that's my wife's favorite show. I'd like to do that and just
turn up on an episode where she wasn't expecting me to be there, so that
would be fun.
Denzel Washington: I'd like to do Lockdown, the prison
documentary... I don't know; that's one of my favorite shows [but] I don't
watch TV. Unless I'm throwing a ball, I don't really watch any of these
series shows. I couldn't tell you.
Russell Crowe: What do you think we should be on?
Denzel Washington: There's a good point. What should we be...
What should we be fishing for?
You could be the new Odd Couple.
Denzel Washington: You've got a future in this business. Now I know
why you're here. That's a good idea.
Russell Crowe: You'd have to be Tony Randall, though.
Denzel Washington: I'd have to be Tony Randall, the neat one?
Russell Crowe: Yeah. You do.
Denzel Washington: And you expect me to be the neat one? Well, am I
the neat one in this movie?
Russell Crowe: Yeah.
were you hesitant about playing another dark character...
Denzel Washington: I wasn't hesitant at all. A good story is a good
story. I just think that before Training Day, I hadn't really been
offered that kind of role. After Training Day, that was all I was
offered [laughs]. No, that's not true, but I was offered more of that
kind of thing. But it just comes down to good material, a great actor to
work with and a great filmmaker. It wasn't that complicated.
Denzel, with regards to your second directorial effort The Great
Debaters, What did you do differently with it from Antwone Fisher;
your debut as a director suffered from bad marketing.
Denzel Washington: That I had a problem with marketing? To be quite
frank with you, one of the things I learned from that first go-round is that
I'm popular, so if you do The Oprah Winfrey Show or The Today Show
or this or that. Johnny Carson!!! [laughter] I mean The Tonight
Show, and you tell people the film's coming out on Friday, but in fact
it's platformed and only coming out in two theaters initially until they
roll it out national, [then that's] a mistake.
As for The Great Debaters – yes, it's an entirely different story. We
tested the film up in the Bay area [before we released it], and it tested
through the roof. People loved it and it had a great ovation at the end of
So we're not coming out in two theaters. We're coming out in 2,000 or
something right away, and – not to knock the marketing guys or whoever –
because I was as much a part of that as they were. I think that's something
we'll do differently this time. Because my mother was calling me –
everybody's calling me [when Antwone Fisher came out] – "You said the
movie's coming out, well where is it?"
"Well it's in New York and one theatre in L.A. so..."
Folks didn't understand that. You told them it was coming out tomorrow. All
The Great Debaters is a wonderful film for great young actors, and
[it has] a young man named Denzel Whitaker [not related to either Washington
or co-star Forrest Whitaker], if you can believe that... and Forrest
Whitaker and myself are in the film as well. So I'm very happy about it.
It's a completely different film from this and I'm proud of it.
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