After reading his emails, Judge Victor Valdivia realizes he leads a violent and dangerous life. Who knew reviewing DVDs for a Web site was so gangsta?
Our reviews of American Gangster: The Complete First Season (published December 12th, 2007), American Gangster (Blu-Ray) (published October 23rd, 2008), American Gangster (HD DVD) (published February 19th, 2008), and American Gangster: Two-Disc Extended Edition (published February 19th, 2008) are also available.
True Crimes. Real Consequences.
American Gangster, BET's entry into the true crime genre, releases its second season, and while greater quantity doesn't quite translate to higher quality, it's still a praiseworthy effort.
Facts of the Case
Here are the 10 episodes of American Gangster: The Complete Second Season compiled on three discs:
• "Larry Hoover": As the leader of Chicago's most feared street gang, the Gangster Disciples, Larry Hoover commanded an army of vicious thugs that ruled the city's streets. But even as he claimed to reform his life and gang, it became harder and harder to tell how much of his old ways he could leave behind.
"Melvin Williams": The king of Baltimore's heroin underworld in the late '70s, Williams' intricate codes and elaborate organization served as the key inspiration for the HBO series The Wire.
• "The D.C. Snipers": In the fall of 2002, John Muhammad conceived a monstrous plot to terrorize the area in and around Washington D.C. He enlisted his teenage protégé Lee Malvo and embarked on a horrifying killing spree that left ten people dead.
• "Felix Mitchell":When Mitchell, a small-time heroin dealer in the Oakland area, decided to bring crack into his neighborhood drug ring in the early '80s, he began a chain of events that would make him Oakland's biggest drug lord but would also turn it into the most violent city in California, a violence that followed him even after he was arrested.
• "Jeff Fort and the Blackstone Rangers": In the '60s, Fort turned Chicago's Blackstone Rangers from a street gang to a revolutionary force that rivaled the Black Panthers. But at heart, he never could abandon his street roots, even when he changed the Rangers into a Muslim collective named El Rukns with ties to Libyan leader Muammar Al-Khadafy.
• "Rayful Edmonds III": During the 1980s, over two-thirds of the crack cocaine sold in the D.C. area was controlled by Edmonds. His power and fortune lasted with him even after he was sentenced to life without parole when he cut a deal with Colombia's Cali cartel.
• "Kenneth 'Supreme' McGriff": From his days as one of Queens' drug kingpins in the '80s to his aspirations as a movie producer and rap impresario in the '90s, McGriff always looked for a way to hit the big time. Unfortunately, not even friends like Irv Gotti and Ja Rule could help him escape his past.
Much of the controversy surrounding American Gangster in its first season centered on whether it was possible to tell the stories of such drug titans and gang kingpins without glamorizing them. Those criticisms abated when the show aired and people could see that it was a thoughtful and balanced look at true crime without either cheap sensationalism or pompous moralizing. The second season is generally in the same vein, although the presence of so many episodes (four more than in the first season) devoted to drug dealers becomes a bit wearisome, especially when the episodes are watched all in a row. It's still a smart and worthy show, it's just not quite of the uniform high quality of the first season.
American Gangster has some advantages over other true-crime shows. It eschews cheesy reenactments with hacky actors overemoting, unlike too many similar shows. Only interviews, archive footage, and narration are used to tell the stories. The show also puts some of these criminals in a better historical context than most. In the early '70s, it was possible for thugs like Chaz Williams, Jeff Fort, and the Black Philly Mafia to cloak their brutality in the revolutionary language of the era. By invoking racism and poverty, they were able to justify robbing banks, shaking down small businessmen and murdering "traitors." In addition, the show doesn't just rely on cops, journalists, and prosecutors for its interviews. Witnesses, community activists, relatives, and associates are also interviewed, providing a more through perspective. A new addition this season consists of interviews with four of the profiled gangsters: Lucas, Chaz Williams, Melvin Williams (no relation), and Bo Baines of the Philly Black Mafia. By contrast, none of the gangsters profiled in the show's first season were interviewed, as some were dead and others were either in prison or in the Witness Relocation Program.
This season, American Gangster tries to expand from the first in other ways. The profile of the D.C. snipers is different from any other the show has done in that it has nothing to do with money or the ghetto. It's actually one of the best episodes of the series, but it is done in a much different style than the others. Instead of a biographical "rise and fall" story, it's presented as a tense procedural, with D.C. police carefully putting together the pieces that led them to Muhammad and Malvo. It's a refreshing change from the sometimes repetitive drug lord stories and, if the show gets a third season, points to a possible way for future episodes.
Indeed, American Gangster's second season, much as in its first, is at its best when it doesn't rely on the clichés that inform so much true crime television. The best episodes, such as the ones involving the Black Philly Mafia and Jeff Fort, work on two levels. They tell important stories that have rarely been heard in the mainstream media, and they are edited and written into engrossing narratives that make great TV. Although one or two drug dealer episodes could have been left off (none of which are really bad, just somewhat monotonous), the show is still arguably the best of its type. True crime buffs should give this a look, especially if they liked the first season.
The full-screen video and Dolby Digital stereo mix are both top-notch TV quality.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Ironically enough, the weakest parts of this season all come from the episodes where some of the profiled criminals are interviewed. These segments are by far the most repetitious, with endless justifications about discrimination and the ghetto and endless stories about big money, nice clothes, and fancy houses. It's as if Lucas, Chaz Williams, and Melvin Williams are all reading from the exact same script. Though some of their associates claim that they feel remorse, the men themselves don't seem to show much of that. Frankly, if all we're going to see from these men is self-aggrandizement and self-pity, it might have been a better idea to edit these down to their bare essentials.
Nowhere is this more evident than on the special features, which are extended interviews with some of the gangsters. Disc One has Melvin Williams (31:48), Disc Two has both Frank Lucas (22:46) and Lucas' son Frank Jr. (26:49), and Disc Three has Bo Baines (3:50). None of these are of much value, consisting as they do of endless boasting and rationalization. The Baines interview is the worst: he denies that he had anything to do with the multiple crimes he was convicted of but refuses to provide any alternate explanations (which is probably why it's the shortest). Anyone who watches these hoping to get more information or perspective will be sorely disappointed.
The second season of American Gangster isn't quite as consistently enthralling as the first. There are only so many stories about slanging rocks, counting money, and fancy clothes even the most devoted true crime buff can take in one sitting. Nonetheless, it's still a cut above most true crime shows on TV. So while newcomers should start with the first season, anyone who enjoyed that one will definitely find this one a must. A third season, if it uses this season's best episodes as examples, would be welcome.
Not guilty. But how about fewer drug lords next season, please?
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