How American Gangster Reinvents the Black Villain

Before the opening-weekend box office returns even came in, it wasn't too hard to tell how American Gangster would do. The gritty crime drama, starring Oscar-winners Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, was in high demand almost a month before its release and available on high-quality bootleg DVDs. Superbly crafted by director Ridley Scott, the movie garnered acclaim most everywhere and, predictably, grabbed the box office's top spot too, pulling in a whopping $46 million-plus and making Gangster the most successful debut of a crime drama in history.

But Gangster is more than a critical and commercial success. It's a sign of an important progression in American cinema. There is, of course, nothing new about gangster movies with Oscar aspirations. But a gangster film starring an emotionally complex, flawed but redeemable, African American character? That's almost unheard of. By taking on such a role, Washington is reinventing the conventional villain, and the black villain in particular. The traditional one -- wide-eyed, wild, and inherently evil -- is so common in American cinema that he's hard to ignore, yet he's rarely recognized as part and parcel of what got the medium itself off the ground. In fact, just about every black actor has played such a villain (with the notable exceptions of Washington and his forebear, Sidney Poitier). And the back story to this stereotypical character offers a rare opportunity to reveal a long list of forgotten movie history.

If you look back at Birth of a Nation, our original American cinematic masterpiece, or so we're told, you'll find a film, and an art form itself, that has at its core the most insidious dark-hued villains of all time. Of course, the film, which was in many ways the first blockbuster in history, can also claim a lot of credit for countless cinematic innovations: close-ups, crowd shots with big groups of extras and even an original score. Also known as The Clansman, the movie features, Gus, an ex-slave (really a white man in blackface) who's after a piece of white female flesh. He's an uncontrollable animal, and largely because of his villainy, the film boosted Ku Klux Klan membership and led to more lynching. (For those who don't know, the film essentially argues that Reconstruction failed and white supremacy saved the nation by hastening its demise.)

For those reasons, Birth of a Nation might be the most conflicted, and most terribly consequential, piece of art in our nation's history. (It also featured a tragic mulatto, another classic American character. For more on this archetype, watch a fictional mulatto girl in a later seminal film, Imitation of Life.) What's more, mainstream American cinema didn't improve all that much for black villains in the 90-plus years following Birth of a Nation's release. Not until Washington established himself as one of the best actors of his generation, anyway.

Before Washington's role choices of late, beginning with his turn as a corrupt cop in 2001's Training Day, you'd be hard pressed to find a single sophisticated black villain in a major film devoid of the trappings of bias. Take a lesser-known actor such as British-born Delroy Lindo, a guy who might have thrived if white but who has rarely been more than a complement to more important characters. Lindo's been pigeonholed into the worst types of roles. While he was a brilliantly ferocious drug lord in Spike Lee's Clockers, a film that went largely unnoticed, he also played an unsavory voodoo doctor in the more popular The Devil's Advocate, and a father who rapes and impregnates his own daughter in the well-received The Cider House Rules. Need more examples? How about this one: Morgan Freeman's break-out role as a pimp named "Fast Black" in the forgettable 1987 film Street Smart. You had to pimp your way to stardom if you were an African American actor back then, (and perhaps drive Miss Daisy, too) no matter how talented. Even Samuel Jackson's hilarious hit man in Pulp Fiction pushed the envelope on caricature with his absurd Jheri curl.

Then, in Training Day, Washington took on the Herculean task of reinventing the black anti-hero by making him more than a two-dimensional villain -- and was rewarded with an Academy Award, though I'm not sure if the Academy thought it was bucking a trend or tipping its hat to colored folks' crooked nature. But as the corrupt cop Alonzo Harris, Washington was more than a bad guy, and definitely not a caricature. He was a larger-than-life villain whose megalomania had spun out of control. And, as I have argued before, it was a landmark turn for a black actor.

But the process of reworking the black villain -- the gangster, the outlaw, the anti-hero, you name it -- couldn't stop there. Plus, there was a catch. When Washington won the 2002 Academy Award for Best Actor, Halle Berry, in a great turn as a confused (perhaps tragic and even mulatto) black woman, also won an Oscar, and yes, deservingly so. But that made it the somewhat more muted year of the "black Oscar," instead of just a seminal accomplishment for both actors. (Things have gotten better, thankfully.) Still, as that timeline suggests, before black actors could win for playing good people, they seem to have had to win for playing bad (or inexplicably whorish) ones.

What's interesting about Washington, a megastar by every measure, is he often likes to claim publicly that he has no agenda, that raising his black characters above typecasting isn't critical to what he does. "It's not about the black experience," Washington replied when Men's Vogue recently asked him about the roles he chooses. "It's more selfish. What I feel like doing, not what people need."

All evidence points to the contrary, though. Before his Training Day performance, one of the only times Washington had ever played a villain was in the title role in Richard III in a 1990 Shakespeare in the Park production. That role wasn't written for him or for any black actor, of course. He's made an effort, as the leading black actor of his generation, to play upstanding guy after upstanding guy (see Courage Under Fire, Remember the Titans, and John Q) -- and a lot of race-specific heroes, too (Steve Biko, Hurricane Carter, Malcolm X).

He's also taken countless roles and reworked them with race in mind -- note how his character in The Pelican Brief, while chasing some bad guys, can't hail a cab, or the racially coded banter between him and Gene Hackman's character in Crimson Tide's climactic scene, (in crackling dialogue written by an un-credited Quentin Tarantino). As a young actor, he took many principled stands, some of which could have been career threatening. He refused, for example, a role in Oliver Stone's because he didn't just want to play "one of the black characters" that "left before the fighting started." For many an actor, that could have been a death knell for his career.

Plus, Washington has said countless times that his idol is Sidney Poitier. He even noted Poitier in his 2002 Oscar acceptance speech, saying, "I'll always be chasing you." Poitier couldn't escape playing the emblematically upbeat black man, and even admitted that many of his roles were bourgeois daydreams aimed at appeasing whites' fears of blacks (Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?, anyone?). Washington, for his part, might not want to follow even his idol off that cliff. Poitier became irrelevant when the blaxploitation boom of the early 1970s hit, and films like Shaft and Superfly began representing, if only in two dimensions, the more radical racial politics of the streets. And Poitier's career, defined by more than a handful of absurdly positive characters meant to uplift the image of blacks among whites, never came close to recovering. Washington, now in his early 50s, is just about the age Poitier was when he had nobody left to play but maybe Jackie Robinson and Martin Luther King Jr. before running out of relentlessly positive material. And with hip-hop now a global phenomenon -- note all the real-life rappers in Gangster (Common, T.I., RZA) -- you know it's decidedly cooler to play a hoodlum than a good guy nowadays.

So in Gangster, Washington jumped on the title role of Frank Lucas, one of the most successful, and until recently, one of the most forgotten, Harlem hoodlums in history. (The film was inspired by an article in New York magazine.) The movie tells a familiar story; a gangster rises from sidekick and strong man to cream of the crop, only to be taken down by his occasional, if slowly mounting, excesses. He then sells out his enemies for a lighter sentence (if it sounds a bit like Goodfellas, in practice, it isn't), but loses more than just his identity. Lucas is a smart, sophisticated, hard-working, and complicated man. He's no fool and even his signature accomplishment -- being the first black man to rise above the white mob in the drug-slinging food chain -- is made as a fairly muted point. The film closes with him walking out of jail after 15 years, in a beat-up suit, hair gray, in a world so unfamiliar he can no longer pimp it even if he tried.

The film also weaves in the story of Richie Roberts (played by Crowe), a cop with a messy personal life who walks too straight and narrow to fit in with the boys in blue. In the end, Roberts and Lucas work together to take down more than one unusually rogue Harlem gangster -- and if that makes it a buddy flick, well, it's one of the least-conventional buddy flicks you've seen in a while, I'll tell you that.

I'd guess Poitier might be somewhere looking on, admiring, wondering how he could have played Bumby Johnson, Lucas's real life mentor, back in the 1970s, and saved himself decades of end-of-career irrelevancy. And if Washington struts on stage again early next year to claim another Academy Award for Best Actor, for what some have called playing a black Scarface (doesn't that tell you how far we have not come?) -- he'll walk off into a deeper, darker, and more nuanced sunset.