Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott’s American Gangster is exactly that: an American gangster. The real Frank Lucas was born in North Carolina so dirt poor that he never even attended school. But he could have taught at any business college. His success is the American dream, and he has a lot to be grateful for. Washington’s Lucas is also a traditionalist in the 2007 crime epic, and he celebrates Thanksgiving “the American way.” He throws a family feast, leads his family in grace, and gives out turkeys to the needy and the greedy.
After an introductory and incendiary business lesson, American Gangster opens on Thanksgiving. Harlem Godfather Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) is standing on the back of a freight truck, giving out turkeys to the less fortunate. The crowds are cheering, and he calls Frank over bask in the loving spotlight. His young protégé demurs, allowing his boss to be the sole beneficiary of the mass gratitude for this act of beneficence. This title tells us this is Harlem in 1968, and the appreciation rising from the streets shows this is true soul food.
The tradition of gangsters giving back to their community is a time-honored one. Chicago crime boss Al Capone personally donated 5,000 turkeys on Thanksgiving Day 1930–although some reports say it was beef stew–through his State Street soup kitchen, the Loop. President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Federal Surplus Relief Corporation wouldn’t be formed until October 1933. The first food banks opened in 1967. Mob figures were always ahead of the curve. James “Whitey” Bulger handed out turkeys on the South End of Boston. Lucas also gave them out, as did mobster Raymond Marquez.
In director Mario Van Peeble’s 1991 gangster classic, New Jack City, Nino Brown (Wesley Snipes) and his Cash Money Brothers get caught, in part, because of their public shows of festive generosity. Bryan and Slim Williams were so moved by the film they founded Cash Money Records, and also gave away Thanksgiving dinners. Gangsta rappers have continued the tradition. Oakland rapper Stanley Cox, AKA Mistah F.A.B., who even name drops Frank Lucas in “You Got Bodied,” has been sponsoring annual turkey drives for years.
In American Gangster, Lucas drives past rival gangster Nicky “Mr. Untouchable” Barnes’ (Cuba Gooding Jr.) annual turkey giveaway. He doesn’t put in an appearance because he is making a special delivery. Frank normally dresses business conservative, classy but downplayed, but he exhibits conspicuous consumption during “The Fight of the Century.” He shows up at the Ali-Frazier fight wearing a matching chinchilla coat and hat with a combined retail price tag of $75,000. This catches the attention of Special Investigations Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin), who has never even gotten “a cup of coffee” from the successful mobster. “There’s something wrong there,” Trupo says in the film. “Pay your bills, Frank.”
Well, this makes Lucas feel the same way Ebenezer Scrooge felt after a visit from his old partner in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and he responds the same way. Lucas doesn’t scrimp on the prize bird. This is no frozen grocery surplus that fell off the back of a truck. The Harlem gangster delivers a live turkey to the jive turkey. Not wanting credit for his largesse, he leaves the big bird in a cage.
As Trupo is admiring his new feathered friend, Lucas sends his most meaningful Thanksgiving greeting, blowing up the special investigator’s prized Shelby Mustang. “I loved that car,” Trupo would later admit to Frank, who simply and understandably says “I know.” But the gangster does offer some amends. When the detective finds “Blue Magic,” the pure heroin which is being distributed throughout the tri-state area, in Frank and his brother Huey’s (Chiwetel Ejiofor) car, Lucas is still in the holiday mood. “Zip it up, throw it back in the trunk, we’re gonna go home to our wives, have some warm apple pie, apple cider.”
Frank is not ostentatious in his business, his charity, or his presentation. He winds up burning the attention-getting chinchilla coat. Thanksgiving dinner at his mother’s (Ruby Dee) house is elaborate but traditional. Lucas, like Bumpy before him, spends a lot of time with Italian gangsters, and takes their advice and counsel seriously. If this extended to holiday cuisine, the Lucas family would have started with antipasto, followed by a pasta dish, something like stuffed shells, manicotti or lasagna, but baked ziti is perfectly acceptable. Then he would have served the turkey, as well as possibly a ham, and followed that with pastries, espresso, and sambuca.
With a screenplay by Steven Zaillian (Gangs of New York), American Gangster has many parallels to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, yet also runs counter to the film in important ways. Lucas is portrayed as a ruthless businessman who goes to church regularly, and puts fresh flowers on the grave of Bumpy Johnson with the same consistency. Scott cuts from the family dinner to the junkies who make up the collateral damage of Lucas’ success, but the gangster still comes across as a family man, religious and faithful. He marries Eva (Lymari Nadal) in a church wedding, and his final arrest is a deconstruction of The Godfather‘s baptism scene. While it provides an alibi for Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) in Coppola’s film, the church is no final refuge for Washington’s most American gangster in Ridley’s gangster epic.
The Lucas family’s holiday meal is very American. It has all the fixings, and the whole family attends. Frank asks them all to hold hands as he prays to God to “feed our souls with heavenly grace.” But there is one soul who is not graced with a turkey, and he’s the one who could use it the most.
Russell Crowe’s Det. Richie Roberts is not an afficionado of fine cuisine, to put it mildly. Mobsters eat well, from the sloppy sausage sandwiches Sonny Corleone (James Caan) scrapes direct from the pot in The Godfather through the razor-thin sliced garlic on the jail cuisine in Goodfellas, to the sweet Charlotte Russe in Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in America. In American Gangster, Mafia boss Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) explains how Frank “upsets the natural order” of things when he monopolizes his brand. But Det. Roberts celebrates Thanksgiving with a tuna sandwich on white bread. He doesn’t even put bread crumbs or mayo on it for binding. He loads it with potato chips. That is an unnatural celebration no one should order.
So who’s the real American that day?