A movie for every day of the year – a good one
John F Kennedy proposes the Civil Rights Act, 1963
On this day in 1963, the US president, John F Kennedy addressed the nation. In his speech he called for legislation with would give all Americans “the right to be served in facilities which are open to the public – hotels, restaurants, theaters, retail stores and similar establishments”. He also called for equality before the law when it came to voting. His proposals would outlaw discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex or national origin and effectively sounded the death knell for racial segregation – in buses, diners, schools, wherever.
The US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, adopted in 1868, guaranteeing equal protection under the law, had ventured into the same territory but it took the Civil Rights Act to finally make the change which made it illegal to treat African Americans (which is what both the 14th Amendment and Civil Rights Act were really all about) as second class citizens. The bill was written up and sent to Congress on 19 June, where it was reinforced. It then got bogged down on a procedural technicality in October in the House of Representatives, where the intention of some delegates was to keep it on ice indefinitely.
The assassination of the president on 22 November 1963 made this blocking strategy untenable after the astute new president, Lyndon Johnson, in his first speech to a joint session of Congress, said “No memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honour President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long.” Johnson had his way, though there were still compromises before the bill was finally, tortuously signed into law on 2 July 1964.
American Gangster (2007, dir.: Ridley Scott)
What do Civil Rights mean for a black man? In director Ridley Scott’s slightly cheeky hands they mean the liberty to do just what everyone else has been doing, and that includes becoming a drugs kingpin. And the more you think of it, there has been a dearth of black drug lords on the screens – two-bit hustlers on street corners, plenty.
That’s not the only thing going on in this fascinating drama starring Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, the Harlem heroin dealer importing drugs into the country on planes coming back from Vietnam, a smart guy on the rise; Russell Crowe as Richie Roberts, the honest (and therefore reviled by his fellows) cop on his case, the two men locked together in a dance towards the volcano’s edge. If that sounds entirely like your standard-issue cops’n’mobsters set-up, that’s exactly what American Gangster is, an exercise in stylistic pastiche.
But it is a hell of an exercise. Running its twin-track stories in parallel – the gentleman gangster who’s good to his mother; the troubled cop who’s good to nobody, not even his “it’s me or the job” woman (Carla Gugino) – Ridley carefully builds the story, holding off a meeting of the two key players until near the end. This is one of those big finale showdowns, in which Washington and Crowe have one of those tense, long, actorly scenes that writers like, stars love and audiences tolerate.
On the way to it, Scott gives Scorsese a soft pedal, though Frank Lucas’s mob-boss mom is a lift straight out of Goodfellas (is it any surprise to discover that Goodfellas writer Nicholas Pileggi is one of the executive producers?). Scott goes a bit harder on The French Connection – that soft hazy, 60s/70s visual style is accurately captured, there’s a soundtrack straight from the Lalo Schifrin/Curtis Mayfield school of funky jazzy cool. You say derivative, I say homage. Whichever it is, Scott does it right, his actors and technicians do him proud and an intriguing story is told – a true one too – of a nobody who became a somebody by running a drugs empire the way you might run a department store (keep the staff and the customers happy). In the America of the Civil Rights era, the idea is, for the black man who wants a piece of the American Dream, this is one of the few ways to make that happen.
- Steve Zaillian’s smart, incident-rich screenplay
- The period look of Harris Savides’s cinematography
- Marc Streitenfeld’s score
- The muscular Washington/Crowe pairing
American Gangster – Watch it now at Amazon
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© Steve Morrissey 2014