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Truth, with consequences

Denzel Washington took the role of 'American Gangster's' real-life drug kingpin with an understanding: The bad guy had to be punished.

September 09, 2007|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

As a teenager visiting Harlem, Denzel Washington never came across drug lord Frank Lucas in person. But Washington certainly saw the human wreckage that Lucas helped create, especially along 116th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues.
"There were junkies everywhere," Washington says. "The neighborhood was destroyed by people like Frank Lucas."
To lay waste to so many lives, Lucas had to have possessed incredible power. His ascension as an unrivaled heroin dealer -- and his subsequent downfall as a police snitch who lost everything -- lies at the heart of "American Gangster," which arrives Nov. 2 after several false starts.
Starring Washington as Lucas and Russell Crowe as Det. Richie Roberts, the Ridley Scott-directed film is as much old-fashioned western as "Scarface" crime drama. Lucas has made Harlem an outlaw town, and his protectors and accomplices include both the local police and the U.S. military. Roberts is the overmatched but idealistic sheriff who wants to reestablish law and order and send the bad guys packing.

But "American Gangster" is also a portrait of an era. Steven Zaillian's screenplay, which formerly was going to be directed by Antoine Fuqua ("Training Day") and then by Terry George ("Hotel Rwanda"), manages to weave together Vietnam, the civil rights movement, modern-day empire building and the emergence of gangsta style. The film's entrepreneurs are just like Tom Wolfe's Masters of the Universe, but rather than selling municipal bonds, they're peddling heroin called Blue Magic.

And it's all inspired by a true story.

As chronicled in a 2000 New York magazine article by Mark Jacobson that served as the rough basis for the film, Lucas was a poorly educated North Carolina kid who came to New York mainly to escape his petty-criminal past. Before long, Lucas was driving the notorious African American crime boss Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson around Harlem. Lucas learned at the feet of a legend, and when Johnson died, Lucas didn't just fill his mentor's shoes, he took his business global.

By buying and importing heroin directly from Thailand, Burma and Laos (with some shipments smuggled inside American soldiers' coffins returning from Vietnam), Lucas was able to generate staggering profits -- pocketing as much as $1 million a day.

"I just thought the story was unique -- that a semiliterate guy from North Carolina could go to Southeast Asia and navigate his way through that world," says "American Gangster" producer Brian Grazer. "He was so elusive. What he did blew my mind."

Lucas' story also impressed Washington, but he turned down a chance to make it several times -- until Fuqua came on board. "When Antoine came on, I said yes," Washington says.

Fuqua had directed Washington to his best actor Oscar in "Training Day," and the two decided to reunite on "American Gangster." But with Fuqua just weeks from filming in 2004, Universal Pictures grew nervous about the film's budget and Fuqua's revisions. Even as sets were built and cast and crew hired, the studio pulled "American Gangster's" plug.

"The movie Steve Zaillian wrote was more epic in scope than the movie Antoine wanted to make," says Marc Shmuger, Universal's chairman. Fuqua says he wanted his movie to be both epic and character-driven: "I wish the best for the movie, because it's got some of the best talent in the business," the director says. "I'm sure I didn't do everything right, but I'm also sure I didn't do everything wrong."

George subsequently reworked the script for his "Hotel Rwanda" star Don Cheadle, but Universal feared that version missed the project's potential too. Then Scott came into the picture and rang up Washington.

"He's without question the No. 1 black actor," says Scott, the director of "Gladiator" and "Black Hawk Down." "Denzel can hold the stage -- whether it's on Broadway or in a movie --and he's always slightly beyond his material. He elevates everything he's doing."

'The ultimate pragmatist'

Washington was interested but wanted to know what version of the movie Scott planned on making.

"Denzel is the ultimate pragmatist," Scott says. "He laughed and said, 'You're the third one up. What's your story?' " When Scott told him he wanted to revert to Zaillian's original script, Washington was back in.

Washington, who is typically seen playing crusading winners in movies such as "Remember the Titans" and "Inside Man," likes playing the occasional baddie. "You can say anything, you can do anything. Bad guys are fun," he says.

But there was much more to Lucas than a one-dimensional villain. "He wasn't well educated, but you see how intelligent Frank is -- I mean street smart," says Washington, who spent considerable time with Lucas during filming and describes him now as a "small, broken man, out of his element."

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