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DISSECTING THE BLACK "SCARFACE"

Friday, November 16, 2007.

By Steven Barnes

In the early 1970s, an enterprising young gangster named Frank Lucas travelled to South East Asia, made a direct connection with the opium lords, and opened a heroin conduit to New York so powerful that he was able to sell product that was twice as strong at half the price. He amassed a fortune approaching half a billion dollars, and was described as “the most dangerous man” in the state.

He was actually above the Mafia in terms of dealing, and by maintaining a low profile, eluded notice by the police for many years. His story would be remarkable enough as it was, but the fact that Lucas was black makes it a sort of bizarre Horatio Algiers cum Black Caesar story, one of those tales that simply screams out to be made into a film.

And it has. Not a great film. Not even a great gangster film, but probably the best since “Goodfellas” with the possible exception of “Pulp Fiction” –which is kind of a deconstructed meta-gangster tale anyway.

Denzel Washington is simply superb in the role. And Russell Crowe, as Richie Roberts, the amazingly honest cop whose parallel story ultimately intersects with Lucas’ empire is his equal at every step.

 

The direction, by Ridley Scott, is deceptively elegant, and the script, written by Steven Zaillian, in two completely different pieces—one from the point of view of Lucas, and the other from the angle of cop Richie Roberts, is concise, powerful, and hypnotically rhythmic.

 

The supporting cast, notably Ruby Dee, is just phenomenal. They gave us violence and profanity. The theme is fairly honest and already creating a major Oscar buzz, I’d been waiting for this one for months and it was worth it - A B+.

WARNING: SAMBO ALERT (BLACK MEN STILL CAN’T GET LAID IN A TOP MOVIE)

You guessed it: Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas is the most sexless gangster you ever saw. Russell Crowe has three different women, one in bed, one banged up against a wall, and the third just kissed leaving his apartment.

 

Denzel gets a couple of kisses. That’s it. I had the naiveté to hope that they might take a chance and let him actually have some sex. Nope. If they had let us see the arc of his relationship with the Puerto Rican beauty who became his wife, just a glimpse into his inner world, his softness and personal passion, this might have been a classic.

 

By denying us that core, it calls into question his entire reason for building the empire in the first place. It is dishonest and cowardly, and taints the enterprise. And it’s a terrific movie anyway. What a missed opportunity!

 

Steven Barnes is a novelist, television writer and art critics. He blogs as Darkush.

 

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