Paramount // 2007 // 246 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // December 12th, 2007
True Crimes. Real Consequences.
American Gangster: The Complete First Season compiles the first 6 episodes in Black Entertainment Television's controversial entry into the true-crime genre. The show is as worthy as anything on the Biography or History Channel, and deserves a look, especially for true crime fans.
Narrated by Ving Rhames(Pulp Fiction), American Gangster tells the true stories of infamous African-American criminals. Using interviews, film footage, photographs and archival documents, each episode lasts about 40 minutes and tells the stories of their spectacular rise and disastrous fall. Here are the 6 episodes, split up over 2 discs:
"Stanley 'Tookie' Williams": The king of L.A.'s most notorious gang, the Crips, Williams turned the Crips from a ragtag bunch of street punks into the most feared, brutal killing machine on South Central L.A.'s streets. After being convicted of murder in 1979, Williams became an outspoken anti-gang activist, urging a peace treaty between the Crips and their mortal enemies, the Bloods. He was even nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his anti-gang work, but it wasn't enough to save him from death row.
"Ricky 'Freeway' Ross": The ruler of L.A.'s crack dealers, starting in the early '80s and continuing until the mid-'90s. Ross was especially notable for aligning himself with a right-wing paramilitary Nicaraguan who was protected by the U.S. government, presumably for his ties to the U.S.-backed Contras in Nicaragua in the '80s. Allegations that the CIA used Ross to help fund their operations in Central America would cause a firestorm of controversy.
"Leroy 'Nicky' Barnes": A former junkie who single-handedly took over the entire heroin trade in Harlem, putting together a crew of associates known as "the Council" in the 1970s. He became so powerful that he was profiled in a cover story in the New York Times Sunday Magazine in 1977 under the headline "Mister Untouchable."
"The Smith Brothers": Troy and Dino Smith, along with their associate George Turner, became the most feared armed robbers in San Francisco in the late '90s, hitting high-end jewelry stores and banks until one huge last score led to their downfall.
"The Chambers Brothers": 4 brothers from the poorest section of Arkansas emigrated to Detroit in the mid-1980s and launched a $50 million a year crack empire, even taking over entire apartment buildings and posting elaborate lists of rules for their employees. They would serve as the inspiration for Wesley Snipes' character Nino Brown in New Jack City.
"Lorenzo 'Fat Cat' Nichols": The kingpin who ran the crack trade in the Queens borough of New York City in the 1980s, he would control a massive drug kingdom and party with the biggest stars of the era. Unfortunately, he would choose associates utterly lacking in self-control or common sense, and these would lead to his, and many others', ruin.
American Gangster was bound to be controversial even before a single minute had aired. For some BET viewers, the idea that a show could be dedicated to the lives and stories of notorious criminals was outrageous. Never mind, of course, that such shows as Notorious, on the Biography Channel, or Dominick Dunne's Power, Privilege and Justice on Court TV, to name just 2 examples, already cover the stories of (mainly white) criminals. Nonetheless, some viewers, put off by BET's sometimes tawdry and uneven programming, were convinced that the show would sensationalize the crimes, or even worse, lionize the criminals as examples of manhood.
They needn't have worried. In fact, the idea that the show glamorizes or glorifies the criminals it depicts is utterly groundless. Sure, there's some scenes of some of these criminals enjoying the high life, such as "Fat Cat" Nichols partying onstage with hip-hop stars Whodini, or Nicky Barnes throwing himself a lavish 40th birthday party on the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper. But that's to be expected; after all, why else would anyone get into the criminal life? The show, however, is evenhanded enough to point out that a lot of these guys were either too driven or, possibly, too stupid to really enjoy their success. One interviewee describes "Freeway" Ricky Ross at the height of his power as "dressing like a bum," in sloppy clothes and no jewelry. Just before the Chambers brothers were arrested, they videotaped themselves counting piles of money in laundry baskets, but are still wearing cheap, tacky clothing, and don't seem to have even purchased so much as a decent car. And even as he was leading an army of Crips, Tookie Williams developed a PCP addiction so severe that he went on trial for a quadruple homicide and couldn't even remember a single day in court.
Such meticulousness is part of what makes American Gangster a cut above most shows of these type. In the same way, the show also takes the time to explain how some of these stories would have national political repercussions. When Nicky Barnes was profiled on the front page of the New York Times' Sunday Book Review in 1977, President Jimmy Carter was so incensed that he ordered his Attorney General, Griffin Bell, to build a case against Barnes immediately. The result was the trial that would bring down Barnes, and, eventually, his entire cabal, but would also launch the career of an ambitious young prosecutor named Rudolph Giuliani. Similarly, in 1988, Fat Cat Nichols was accused or ordering the murder of a rookie police officer. The murder would so outrage law enforcement that it became a national media firestorm, culminating in then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, running for President that year, carrying the slain officer's badge as a campaign prop he used at virtually every speech he gave to tout his hard-nosed views on crime. And, most famously, when "Freeway" Ricky Ross was arrested, he implicated his Central American partner, Oscar Danilo Blandón, a right-wing Nicaraguan who wound up being protected, for reasons that are still unclear, by the U.S. government. What followed was an infamous series of stories in the Los Angeles Times alleging that the CIA flooded the streets of South Central L.A. with crack to fund their Central American operations, allegations that, to this day, are still widely believed in the black community.
Ultimately, American Gangster would become one of BET's highest-rated programs, and it's no wonder, as it's a commendable effort. The stories are told in a clear, concise, fair-minded manner, and the editing and direction make them as gripping as any thriller and as full of fascinating revelations as any documentary. What's more, by interviewing cops, criminals, and victims, the show gives a fully rounded picture of these criminals, and we learn some perspectives that we may not usually get to hear. The one exception, unfortunately, is the Chambers brothers' episode. Because no one from either the Detroit police department or the Detroit District Attorney's office would participate, the show, which tells an interesting story, is more speculative than the others. It's still quite good, just not as thorough as the other episodes. It's also worth noting how the show does not shy away from depicting just how ugly and awful a lot of these broken, wasted lives ended up. It's hard to say how anyone could look at these stories as anything other than cautionary tales. Some interviewees do play the race card a bit heavily, and there are some bits that could be seen as slightly aggrandizing, but in the end, American Gangster is well done, easily the equal of anything on the History or Biography channels. If anything, this may even have a slight edge, since unlike some History Channel or Biography shows, it never stoops to cheesy reenactments. Any fan of true crime should definitely seek this out.
There is an odd mistake in the specs. The box claims the show is presented in fullscreen, but all the interviews and most of the file footage are presented in widescreen, with only a handful of snippets and pictures in fullscreen. The quality is good for video-to-DVD transfer, with no major flaws or glitches. The sound, in stereo, is standard TV sound, crisp and clean, and since most of the sound consists of interviews, with some background music, it's as much as is needed.
There's not a lot in the way of extras, which is not surprising, since just about everything that needs to be said is covered in the episodes. The extras consist mainly of additional interviews. Disc 1 has an interview (51:18) with Tookie Williams' son Travon, who does not appear at all in the show dedicated to his father. Alternately revealing and infuriating, it's probably longer than it needs to be, and he frequently repeats himself, but he does give away some interesting facts about his father's last years. His insistence on his father's innocence is also revealing, even if he does conveniently gloss over some of his father's famous flaws. Worth watching once, but probably not more than that. Also on disc one is a preview (1:49) for CBS/Paramount mystery shows, mainly the CSI franchise, NCIS, and, strangely, The 4400.
On Disc 2, there are extended interviews (28:35) from 5 of the episodes. More tidbits and leftovers cut out from the main shows, none of these are revealing or memorable, although one interviewee is cut-off mid-sentence, for some reason. There is also a Season 2 Sneak Peek (10:34), mainly some brief interview bits and pieces from upcoming episodes.
Fans of true crime shows and non-fiction shows should check out American Gangster, as it is engaging and thoughtful. The DVD extras aren't much, but then the episodes themselves are pretty comprehensive. Having them all in one set is worth the price alone.
American Gangster: The Complete First Season is acquitted of being exploitative or tacky, and should easily find its way into any true crime or non-fiction show collection.
Review content copyright © 2007 Victor Valdivia; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 246 Minutes
Release Year: 2007
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Exclusive Interview with Son of Stanley "Tookie" Williams
* Extended Interviews
* Season 2 Sneak Peek