Almost Nothing In American Gangster Is Real

Let’s get this part out of the way first. I really enjoyed “American Gangster“. It thought it was a terrific film with a wonderful cast and I was personally bound to the screen the whole time it was on. It’s a great movie and deserve the awards attention its been getting. Having said that…

The film is supposed to be “based on a true story” around the events in the life of gangster Frank Lucas. But its coming out that much, if not most, of the movie is totally untrue and fabricated. The Associated Press give us this:

In “American Gangster,” which is “based on a true story,” Denzel Washington — as the `70s drug lord Frank Lucas — confidently marches deep into the jungles of Southeast Asia as the Vietnam War rages in the background. He is looking for drugs. Later, we see police break open the caskets of Vietnam casualties flown back to the States, searching for the heroin Lucas has audaciously hidden beneath the corpses. Then Lucas is shown as the dope dealer-turned-reformer as he exposes legions of corrupt police.

Except none of the above ever happened.

The story goes on to tell how actual prosecutors and cops who were involved in the Frank Lucas case are contradicting just about everything in the movie and some are even filing lawsuits against Universal Pictures for misrepresenting them and their colleagues.

The question I have is this:

If you find out that a “Based on a true story” movie is actually radically inaqurate (not just the odd creative liberty here and there), does that effect if you enjoy the movie or not…. or… are you just able to appreciate the film anyway regardless if it’s true or not?

Personally, I’m a little torn over that one. Most movies are fiction anyway, so the question is moot most of the time. When I sat down to watch American Gangster, I wasn’t looking for a history lesson, I was looking to be entertained by a film… and it accomplished that. So on that level I have n complaints.

However… I can certainly see things from the point of view of others who may be involved in the events the movie supposedly retells. So what do YOU think? Does this little scandal effect your enjoyment of American Gangster? If you haven’t seen it, will this influence if you end up seeing it or not?

21 thoughts on “Almost Nothing In American Gangster Is Real

  1. Would have been better if they had removed the “based on true story” gimmick and changed the names.

    They should have emulated Mario Puzo’s and Francis Ford Coppola’s strategy on book/film marketing.

    Still, despite the facts, or lack thereof, American Gangster is entertaining.

    Denzel, Russel, Cuba, Ted, Armand, et al were good.

    And Lyman, what can you say, always awesome!

  2. Hmm… having done I little (wikipedia, and actually reading the article) I think the article is a bit harsh on Ridley Scott and co. It would seem that a lot of the MAIN bits (for me, smuggling using coffins and all the cops getting taken down) were believed to be the truth before the film came out. All the claims that it was false etc came out after which you cannot really blame the film makers for (their writers not historians!!). The lies (ie the plot) largely came from Frank Lucas himself. I’m sure liberties were taken, but can you really blame Scott for using the story told by the man being portrayed?

  3. It bothers me a little bit if I find out after the fact that a movie took creative liberties with the truth. But I also realize that’s usually standard operating procedure.

    I would like to ask, however, why Denzel Washington seems to find himself in projects like this. ‘The Hurricane’ played with Ruben Carter’s story quite a bit, too. And ‘The Great Debaters’ changes little things around, too.

    Just don’t tell me that the machine that could look into the past in ‘Deja Vu’ was all made up. I can only handle so much truth.

  4. Whenever I see “based on a true story” I typically assume the worst from “based” and figure that some moment in history of the world inspired the story that eventually spun off into the movie.

    More often than not I think “based on a true story” is a tag they use to generate interest, not something they put up as fact.

  5. I liked American Gangster. I understand that movies based on true stories aren’t 100% accurate, but I have to admit I am a little put off by this news. The plot points mentioned in the post (that Lucas went to Vietnam himself to get the drugs directly from the source, he smuggled them back in coffins, and later exposed corrupt police) are pretty much THE major plot points and themes of the movie. Honestly, they were what kept the film fresh and interesting for me. It was like, “Wow, this guy went straight to the source, separating him from the competition. He brought the drugs back in coffins of dead soldiers. And then he helped bring down 3/4 of New York’s police force? And this REALLY HAPPENED?!”

    I can understand if a film takes the main things that happened and kind of embellishes them a bit, adds an extra scene or two here and there that didn’t really happen. But to complete fabricate the main plot points that the story rests on? Come on! Why not just change the character’s names and make an original movie that isn’t based on anything?

    If the main things that happen in the film aren’t true, then don’t say it’s based on a true story. This does kind of change how I look at the movie. If none of those three things are true, then it’s just good writing rather than good writing based on really awesome events. It’s still a good movie, but in this case it really does add an extra “oomph” if it was mostly true.

  6. I thought that americans don`t care about history and facts – so whats the deal with this story?

    oh damn its great when we rape history in movies – as long as it is the history of someone else (thats sweet!)

  7. i tots agree with you guys here. Films aren’t where people should be getting their history lessons from. If they want history, they should go read a history book. People have to realize that it’s entertainment, and that they have to make concessions to make the movie work.

  8. I couldn’t care less about the “truth” of a narrative film.

    I believe that what’s in question in the lawsuits is a libel question. The film implies corruption/crimes in some characters who are actual people who were not convicted of the specific crimes that the film ascribes to them. That is another matter altogether.

  9. I have not seen the film yet but this does not put me off of it. Most films that are based on a true story are quite far from the truth anyway and you make a good point in that with a film like this you are not looking for a history lesson, you just want it blow you away.

  10. Hey John. You might find this hard to believe but my dad’s friend is actually a character in this movie. He was played by Yul Vazquez, and he said that like 30 percent of this movie is real. The other 70 is Hollywood.

  11. i just didn’t see the point of american gangster. there was absolutely nothing in the film that we haven’t seen in other far superior films.

    it was just pointless…then at the end when the caption comes up and tells us what happened after the period the film covers that sounds far more interesting and compelling then anything we have just seen.
    very disappointing film.

    as for changes made to supposed true stories…well you have to take all “true” stories with a grain of salt but it annoys me when they leave thngs out or change things to make the focal character seem nicer or more sympathetic.

    a beautiful mind is te best example of that. ….. they changed so many things and left out all these awful things about the guy that it renders the film completely pointless.

  12. “Film is lies at 24 frames per second”
    “Truth is personal” – everyone has their own ‘truth’.

    Thus the only thing separating a ‘based on a true story’ from a fictional story is that little statement during the end credits – “The following film is not based on actual people or events…” – yea that part is generally omitted for the ‘based on a true story’ type films. That’s the only difference (of course, the Coen Brothers put ‘based on a True Story” on Fargo just as a sly joke, considering they made the film up.)

    Of course, I often gleam more truths from a fictional film than I do from a documentary. So go figure.

    Nope, based on a true story neither enhances nor detracts from a film which stands on its own terms.

    American Gangster was handsome, had a thing or two to say, but didn’t seem like anything special either. No major complaints, just that it didn’t ‘stand out’ in the gangster genre in any way.

  13. To be quite honest, I wasn’t a huge fan of American Gangster…it was not a bad film…it just moved really slow in parts…what kept me interested was the fact that it was based off so called accurate events. Oh well!

  14. Anybody who thinks that “based on a true story” really means that things got down the way they are depicted in a movie is an idiot anyway.
    What bothers me isn’t the “fakeness” of a story. I couldn’t care less about that.
    What bothers me is Hollywood’s obsession with that “Based on a true story”-label. I don’t get the appeal of it. Almost every movie has it in some form nowadays. Why? It doesn’t make the film itself any better.

  15. There’s a great book called “History vs. Hollywood” and it paints a great picture of how Hollywood makes shit up and twists truth to better suit the story and the cinema. This comes as no uprise, and since it wasn’t that great of a movie, I don’t care. I wouldn’t care even if it was the best movie ever made. It’s a movie.

  16. I think that the whole accurate/inaccurate thing shouldn’t affect anyone’s perception of a film. As you said, if you watch films to get your history lesson, you are sadly mistaken in the first place. On the other hand, I didn’t fully enjoy the film as it was (wasn’t horrible, just didn’t live up to the “Oscar hype” that I had been hearing), so maybe it would have been better if it remained true?

  17. Doesn’t matter to me. To be honest, some real life events that the movies are based on are either just too boring or unnecessary, or just don’t mesh into the overall story. People who go into these “Based on a true story” biopics expecting everything to be repeated word for word verbatim, are a little naive in my opinion. Like John, said, biopics in cinema are rarely ever 100% true. American Gangster was perfect just the way it was.

    If i want a real Frank Lucas story, I’ll watch “Biography” on A&E or the “E! True Hollywood Story”

    But in the meantime, I’ll order my “Based on a true story” flicks with extra fabrication and fiction please.

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