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Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe Oppose Each Other in American Gangster

Updated: Oct 9, 2022

Russell Crowe, director Ridley Scott and Denzel Washington making American Gangster

Russell Crowe, director Ridley Scott and Denzel Washington making American Gangster

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe

Oppose Each Other in American Gangster

by Brad Balfour

What a pairing. Actors Denzel Washington (Training Day) and Russell Crowe (Gladiator) play two opposing forces in the struggle between an upwardly mobile black guy and upwardly mobile, distinctly Jewish guy during the ’70s in American Gangster. The black man starts out young, poor, and country-born and bred; the Jewish man is a cop has a moral rudder that stays so on course that in order to succeed he joins a secretive special task force that removes him from his fellow officers who have been thoroughly corrupted by the drug dealers and who also studies to be a lawyer so he can eventually leave the force.

Though Crowe’s character, detective Richie Roberts, is an outcast cop made even more notable by openly wearing a Mogen David who stands apart from other cops (who in those days were primarily Italian and Irish), he’s close enough to the streets to feel a shift of control in the drug underworld. Roberts believes someone is climbing the rungs above the known Italian Mafia and suspects that a black power player has come from nowhere to dominate the scene.

Nobody notices that Frank Lucas (Oscar® winner Washington), the quiet driver/protege to one of the inner city’s leading black crime bosses – the late Bumpy Johnson – has exploited an opening in the power structure to build his own empire and create his own version of the American Dream.

Through ingenuity and a strict discipline learned from his mother (played by Ruby Dee, who has garnered a Best Supporting actress nomination for her work), Lucas sets up his own distribution network for the heroin he brings in from Vietnam, takes control of the inner-city drug trade, and floods the streets with a purer product at a better price. Lucas outplays the leading crime syndicates and becomes not only one of the city’s mainline corrupters, but part of a circle of legit civic superstars.

Yet both Lucas and Roberts share a rigorous ethical code that sets them apart from their colleagues, making them lone figures on opposite sides of the law. They become entwined as they approach a confrontation where Lucas is eventually caught. In an actual ironic turn, Roberts, who is now an attorney, becomes his lawyer and helps him turn on the corrupt players on both sides of the law.

Southern black culture, New York cop culture and Roberts’ core Jewish ethics come into play and conflict in this classic cop-vs.-criminal tales deftly directed by veteran award-winner Ridley Scott. With a spectacular cast that includes such stars as Josh Brolin (also in Oscar-nominated No Country for Old Men), Chiwetel Ejiofor, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Armand Assante, and Ruby Dee, this blistering tale of American entrepreneurship gone awry is produced by Oscar® winner Brian Grazer (A Beautiful Mind) and Scott from a screenplay by Academy Award® winner Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List).

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster

At a press conference, both Washington and Crowe fielded questions from a small group of journalists. And with the awards season in play, both Washington (for his directorial work in a film The Great Debaters released in time for the Oscars) and American Gangster are getting further attention, with its DVD version being released this February.

There is a delicate balance between good and evil in both of your characters. Denzel Washington: Now, who was the good guy and who was the evil guy? [laughs]. That’s the delicate balance.

The line runs parallel between both of them. Denzel Washington: Right. And there you have it [laughs]. The cord runs parallel to both [of us]. Jump in there, Russell.

Russell Crowe: Well, I think that’s one of the fascinating things about the two characters and about the story itself: that none of that is clear. There’s not a clear singular morality. And when you get the opportunity to play that sort of thing, which is nothing more than reality and humanity as it exists, it’s just a bit of fun.

You know, Richie’s an honest guy and all that sort of thing, but as his ex-wife plays him out in the court, she says, “You’re only honest in one area. You try and buy yourself favors for all the shit that you do.” [Referring to his philandering and dodging of support payments]. I just think that’s an honest appraisal of who he was at that time. But it also [spills over] into that area of discussion: why people go bad in the first place, or what was the process [that led] Frank Lucas to become a drug dealer.

If Frank Lucas had been befriended by somebody else and educated in a different area, he might have gotten in a situation where a university was named after him.  He was a very smart guy and used things that he had learned to the best of his ability to change his life and change the life of his family at that time. But it just happened to be that Bumpy Johnson was his teacher. We were joking about doing his sort of course work on the street. [He got a] PhD in criminality under Bumpy Johnson.

Denzel Washington: Yeah [laughs].

Ironically there’s a different reaction to a rapper making a gangster album and an actor making a gangster movie. In fact, this movie even has a few rappers in it – RZA, Common, and T.I. Denzel Washington: What do you mean; what’s the difference?

Denzel Washington in American Gangster

Denzel Washington in American Gangster

Recently, people like Al Sharpton and Oprah Winfrey have been speaking out against the violence and language in hip hop; rappers have a certain approach to being a gangster and get condemned for it. But in gangster movies, the actors are praised. Why is there a difference? Denzel Washington: In 2005 I did Julius Caesar, so whenever any rapper is ready to do some Shakespeare, I’ll be there. I can do both. So can they – if they [have the talent]. There is the difference. This is just one movie. It’s not the only movie I’ve made. I’m not knocking rappers but…

Russell Crowe: I think what he was actually getting to, which is really pretty cool, is that he’s saying that a guy comes out and he sings a song about his lot as a gangster or what his experience was, he puts it on a record, and people get down on him. But you and me, we make a movie about you being a gangster and we get praised for it from a creative point of view.

Denzel Washington: Yeah. Some rappers who have made gangster albums have gotten praise for it too. Some real good ones. Really good ones. AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted[by Ice Cube] is still one of my favorite albums.

Russell Crowe: Is it the criminality that people are getting upset about with the music, or is it sort of like, the attitude? A male-female attitude kind of thing, you know. I mean, there’s some of that sort of stuff, where they’re actually literally singing praises of gun worship, as opposed to a movie that plays out in front of you and a story that’s being told… this is how something actually really happened.

Denzel Washington: And these are the consequences…

Russell Crowe: There’s definitely a difference there.

There are parallels between what happened with the Vietnam War and now with the Iraq war. We’re bringing back a new batch of soldiers who are having mental problems that are leading to drugs and other abuses. What is your take on the new means of distribution of drugs and about who is becoming the new American gangster in this society? Russell Crowe: Over to you…

Denzel Washington: [laughing uproariously]. Who is the new American gangster? Oh man. They get voted in now… Next question.

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster

As far back as Naked City, to The Godfather and The Prince of the City, there has been a strong tradition of New York City crime stories that are powerfully atmospheric. Where do you think American Gangster fits into that cinematic lineage? Denzel Washington: Of all those films you mentioned there are no black people in any of them. Well, I can say for one [thing]. This is a Harlem story. This is about a guy who was a kingpin, but a different kingpin. I think the situation is basically the same. They were obviously different movies, but the business was the same, if it was based on the heroin business. As we were talking earlier, I guess to a degree it’s a genre. There are certain things that are similar in those kinds of films, but this one in particular [is] dealing with a guy from uptown.

Director Ridley Scott has said that Frank Lucas was a very disturbed man and that he was on the set all the time. Scott said it would be fair to describe him as a sociopath. What was your interpretation of him; was there something to that description? Denzel Washington: [I would say] “Sociopath.”

Isn’t that one of the worst things you can say about someone?

Denzel Washington: I wouldn’t say that about Frank. I didn’t find that to be true. I think that as Russell was saying earlier, he was a man without a formal education. He’s a man who at the age of six witnessed his cousin murdered by sociopaths.

Russell Crowe: In uniform.

Denzel Washington: In uniform. Elected officials. And that changed his life. From a very young age he began to steal and worked his way up the line. He came to New York and the most notorious gangster in Harlem [Bumpy Johnson, played by an uncredited Clarence Williams III], recognized the talent, if you will, in this young kid, and continued to train him. He was on the wrong side of the tracks, but he was a brilliant student, and became a master of the business that he was in.

You know, it’s a dirty business. And he’s definitely a criminal. He’s responsible for the death of many people, so I don’t want to just say that he’s a product of his environment. But I guess to a degree we all are, and as Russell said, I think had he got a formal education; had he gone in another direction, had he had different influences, I think he still would have been a leader or a very successful man. You know, he has a 10 or 12-year-old son now who’s brilliant.

Russell Crowe in American Gangster

Russell Crowe in American Gangster

Russell Crowe: That’s a sort of easy one to take head-on, because quite frankly, large parts of Frank Lucas’s life were very glamorous – the night clubs, hanging out with Wilt Chamberlain, sports figures and celebrities of the time. His public persona as such was the guy that ran this nightclub. Everything else that fell down from that was not known. Wilt Chamberlain or any of these celebrities that were hanging out with him wouldn’t have known that Frank was turning over a couple of hundred keys every month in heroin. You know what I mean?

Denzel Washington: And they may have known, but he still had the club where the chicks were [laughter].

Denzel, as a New Yorker, were you familiar with the story of Bumpy Johnson and Nicky Barnes, and did you learn anything by actually playing this character? Denzel Washington: I think everybody heard about Nicky Barnes [a flamboyant drug kingpin that got his supply from Lucas], and again it’s a testament to Frank’s business sense. You never heard about Frank Lucas. Nicky Barnes bought his dope from Frank Lucas, a lot of it. So people were more interested in being in front of the camera and some more in just being behind, and Frank was many layers removed from the streets.

New York today seems to be a lot less corrupt. Maybe I won’t say less corrupt but maybe corrupt in other ways. Denzel Washington: You don’t live here [laughs].

Let me put it another way. Crime is supposedly down a lot more nowadays, but the ’70s was a heightened period of corruption and of problems in terms of the police and the gangsters. What are your insights into the gangsters and police of the day? Denzel Washington: [To Crowe] You know more about the police…

Russell Crowe: I get all the shitty ones…

Denzel Washington: Maybe it’s cliché, but I think there was more honor among thieves in those days. There was a sort of cult of ethics. We didn’t hear about Frank killing kids and that kind of thing, and drive-bys and all of that. He’s a very interesting man. He was very much a family man, and believed in sitting down at Thanksgiving with the family and all of that. He was in the drug business. I don’t think he looked at himself as a killer or even a criminal. He was in a business, he sold the product, and he did a good job at it.

Russell Crowe in American Gangster

Russell Crowe in American Gangster

Russell Crowe: I don’t think anybody wants zealotry in their police force. There’s always got to be room for what you might call benign corruption. Nobody blames a man who steals food to feed his starving children. On the other hand, somebody who picks up a badge and takes an oath to serve and protect – we do expect a certain level of essential honesty.

I mean, you’re going to be put in situations as a policeman that require you to function and observe without necessarily getting involved, and taking the money from drug operations and all that sort of stuff is something that goes past what most of us in society would expect a policeman should do.

The particular time we’re talking about – and this has happened in most countries around the world, most western countries where drugs just suddenly became a gigantic thing – suddenly the money you’re talking about wasn’t small. It was gigantic. You went from talking in terms of tens of thousands to hundreds of millions. That temptation hits the police force at the same time as the temptation to take those drugs that are readily available hits the people on the streets.

So no doubt, there is always going to be that kind of situation where that happened, where the money was just too strong. And greed overtook a lot of people. But that’s one of the byproducts of Frank Lucas’s life that we’ve got to look at as well.

A lot of stuff got cleaned up because of Frank Lucas. Lucas turned state’s evidence and 75% of the people in the Special Investigations Unit got busted because they were on the take. So I think that there is the key for the friendship that [eventually] existed between Richie and Frank. They did a thing together, post Frank’s arrest, which bonded them together as men, and that bond still exists today.

Denzel Washington and and director Ridley Scott making American Gangster

Denzel Washington and and director Ridley Scott making American Gangster

You both have had accolades for your work and done a lot of it cinematically. What inspires you still to get up every day and do the work that you do? Denzel Washington: Good question. Professionally now, I’ve sort of started to head in another direction. Getting behind the camera – the second film I’ve directed now – and I’m sure that’s my new career. But on a more basic level, I was just watching Russell with his little boy up front. That’s part of the reason – not that I got up every morning. I had to go to work so we could eat – but there’s a lot of joy in that, just watching his face, playing with his son and his son just looking at dad.

What we do is like… Acting for me is making a living. It’s not my life, you know. My children and my family – that’s life. The miracle of life. I’ll get up every morning, God willing, for that.

Russell Crowe: I’ve always seen it to be a privilege to make movies. It’s a really expensive, creative medium and people around me to do it. There are things that I can do as an actor that I couldn’t do in any other form of life, and I’ve got a strange personality. But film requires strange people, so I’ve got a nice comfy home.

That’s what I do and I’m really happy with that. And when I know I’m getting up to go to work with Ridley and I know the time and effort he would have put into whatever it is that we’re about to shoot that day, to me it’s just a great privilege. Every day I kind of look around and thank the Lord that it’s still going on, and I just get to work and do the thing I’m doing that day.

Denzel Washington: Yeah, me too.

You two had worked together in an earlier movie, the sci-fi film, Virtuosity.

Russell Crowe: Yes, a wonderful movie [laughter from Washington]. Just a momentary lapse, wasn’t it? [more laughter] I know it’s one of your favorites. We were both young then. Young and innocent… [It had garnered nothing but bad reviews at the time.] Denzel Washington: Not after that movie [laughter].

So did you discuss working together again, and how was it this time around with both of you having won Oscars? Russell Crowe: We didn’t talk about it at all. Brian [Grazer, the producer] was talking to me about it and saying there was a chance we could put it back together if we got X amount of people interested in it, so that’s how the pursuit began, and I heard that Denzel was happy with the idea of doing it with me and obviously I was happy that I was doing it with him. So we didn’t talk about it until we were on the set. “Hello mate. How you doing? Good to see you again.” And we were shooting that day. So…

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster

Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe in American Gangster

When you reach a certain plateau as an actor and have the accolades, you become a celebrated talent who doesn’t need to do what the agents and studio execs want you to do. If you could defy the agents and do projects that would blow our minds what would you choose and why? Russell Crowe: You are saying we occasionally do work that our agents want us to do… [laughs]

Denzel Washington: First of all, my agent works for me. So he does what I say, I don’t do what he says. We start there…

Russell Crowe: If he did what [his agent] wanted him to do, he would have done some funky [Denzel drowns him out with laughter].

Denzel Washington: But having a very good agent, you know, will help protect you from… he will sift through a lot of stuff beforehand.

Russell Crowe: You watch a TV show that you just might want to be a guest on. I’d like to do Sex and the City. And there’s a TV show I’d like to do also that’s my wife’s favorite show. I’d like to do that and just turn up on an episode where she wasn’t expecting me to be there, so that would be fun.

Denzel Washington: I’d like to do Lockdown, the prison documentary… I don’t know; that’s one of my favorite shows [but] I don’t watch TV. Unless I’m throwing a ball, I don’t really watch any of these series shows. I couldn’t tell you.

Russell Crowe: What do you think we should be on?

Denzel Washington: There’s a good point. What should we be…

Russell Crowe: What should we be fishing for?

You could be the new Odd Couple.

Denzel Washington: You’ve got a future in this business. Now I know why you’re here. That’s a good idea.

Russell Crowe: You’d have to be Tony Randall, though.

Denzel Washington: I’d have to be Tony Randall, the neat one?

Russell Crowe: Yeah. You do.

Denzel Washington: And you expect me to be the neat one? Well, am I the neat one in this movie?

Russell Crowe: Yeah.

Denzel Washington and James Brolin in American Gangster

Denzel Washington and James Brolin in American Gangster

Denzel, were you hesitant about playing another dark character… Denzel Washington: I wasn’t hesitant at all. A good story is a good story. I just think that before Training Day, I hadn’t really been offered that kind of role. After Training Day, that was all I was offered [laughs]. No, that’s not true, but I was offered more of that kind of thing. But it just comes down to good material, a great actor to work with and a great filmmaker. It wasn’t that complicated.

Denzel, with regards to your second directorial effort The Great Debaters, What did you do differently with it from Antwone Fisher; your debut as a director suffered from bad marketing.

Denzel Washington: That I had a problem with marketing? To be quite frank with you, one of the things I learned from that first go-round is that I’m popular, so if you do The Oprah Winfrey Show or The Today Show or this or that.  Johnny Carson!!!  [laughter]  I mean The Tonight Show, and you tell people the film’s coming out on Friday, but in fact it’s platformed and only coming out in two theaters initially until they roll it out national, [then that’s] a mistake.

As for The Great Debaters – yes, it’s an entirely different story. We tested the film up in the Bay area [before we released it], and it tested through the roof. People loved it and it had a great ovation at the end of the film.

So we’re not coming out in two theaters. We’re coming out in 2,000 or something right away, and – not to knock the marketing guys or whoever – because I was as much a part of that as they were. I think that’s something we’ll do differently this time. Because my mother was calling me – everybody’s calling me [when Antwone Fisher came out] – “You said the movie’s coming out, well where is it?”

“Well it’s in New York and one theatre in L.A. so…”

Folks didn’t understand that. You told them it was coming out tomorrow. All right, ma.

The Great Debaters is a wonderful film for great young actors, and [it has] a young man named Denzel Whitaker [not related to either Washington or co-star Forrest Whitaker], if you can believe that… and Forrest Whitaker and myself are in the film as well. So I’m very happy about it. It’s a completely different film from this and I’m proud of it.

Copyright ©2008  All rights reserved. Posted: February 12, 2008

Photo Credits:#1 © 2007. Courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.#2 © 2007. Courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.#3 © 2007. Courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.#4 © 2007. Courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.#5 © 2007. Courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.#6 © 2007. Courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.#7 © 2007. Courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.#8 © 2007. Courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.#9 © 2007. Courtesy of Universal Pictures. All rights reserved.

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