American Gangster: Sweet Potato Pie

Year Released: 2007
Directed by: Ridley Scott
Starring: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Josh Brolin, Lymari Nadal, Ruby Dee
(R, 157 min.)

"Behind every great fortune there is a crime." Honore de Balzac

This epic film is a study in contrasts – sartorial splendor versus junkie dishabille, pandemic corruption at war with lonely integrity, and high-minded words interspersed with gut-wrenching deeds. Denzel Washington charms us as the suave villain and Russell Crowe effortlessly dons the skin of the dogged cop out to get him.

If it weren’t for the fact that Frank Lucas was, you know, a gangster, and that his product was not say, square shaped hamburgers but instead heroin of the purest grade, this could very well be the rags to riches story of a super successful entrepreneur. But the only thing Denzel Washington’s Frank Lucas has in common with Will Smith’s Chris Gardner (The Pursuit of Happyness) is what they pursue, Lucas’ coming from Harlem’s junkies instead of Wall Street’s traders. But strangely enough, Lucas approaches the drug trade very much like a Wall Street broker.

First, he has mastered the dress for success mantra, never wrinkling his well-creased suits even as he guns down rivals in cold blood. No, it is the quiet understated look for Lucas, a lesson he imparts to his all too dapper brother in no uncertain terms. “The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room,” Lucas tells him, an admonition he momentarily forgets when his lovely new wife presents him with an over the top chinchilla coat and matching hat, which he foolishly wears to a high profile boxing match, putting him in the cross hairs of the corrupt New York cops trolling for payoffs.

As a good businessman, he also avoids the middleman, traveling on horseback through the jungle to the poppy fields of Southeast Asia in order to buy the heroin direct. Such a patriot, too, as Lucas helps the military bogged down in that quagmire of Vietnam by employing a few good men to transport it back home. 

Like Sam Walton, he gives his customers quite a bit for their money – pure grade priced below the inferior grade on the streets – and thus wipes out the mom and pop competition, as well as quite a few of his customers unprepared for the potency of his product.

And then there’s the area of quality control and trademark restrictions with the rather severe dressing down he gives rival Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) for packaging a lesser quality product under his Blue Magic logo. Finally, Lucas, the ever-faithful family man, offers upward mobility to his hard working North Carolina kin, rescuing them from their honest businesses to the “good life” of money laundering and drug trafficking. 

Detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is upwardly mobile, too. In between knocking down doors and busting skulls to serve warrants, he’s also working toward a law degree at night school. And while his integrity is without question – he actually turns in a million dollars of unmarked bills seized from a car trunk – his casual promiscuity and haphazard fathering mar his Boy Scout image. But it’s not a Boy Scout needed to track down the wily and meticulous Lucas, but someone as streetwise and coolly persistent as Roberts, part bull dog, part blood hound, sniffing down the deadly heroin hidden in the coffins of Viet Nam soldiers.

Apart from the cinematic impact, the stellar acting, and the unexpected character traits of the principals, however, there lurks a reality perhaps as fetid as the junkies’ dark alleys. Not only is the real Frank Lucas cleaned up and sentimentalized on screen – we Americans really love our mobsters -- he also stands to make a mint on the movie (already to the tune of almost a million dollars) and even plans a gangster video game and a clothing line. All this is because his conviction occurred before the Son of Sam law prohibiting criminals to profit from their crime. Detective Richie Roberts laments more film fabrications here

But, then again, Hollywood has never let reality get in the way of a good story, so with that in mind, go and enjoy.

—Kathy Borich

Film-Loving Foodie

Like all good gangsters, Frank Lucas is devoted to his mother, buying her a mansion on a manicured hillside and duly bringing home his future bride for her approval. And then there are the family dinners and the lectures on integrity, loyalty, and all the other virtues to which Lucas gives such eloquent lip service.

And what better setting for his moral bromides than the Thanksgiving table, adorned with silver, china, crystal and innumerable North Carolina kin whom he has just taken into the family business.

Of course, as we look forward to yet another Thanksgiving, our settings may not be as splendid, but it won’t take much for our hearts to be more pure than those assembled at Frank Lucas’ shiny mahogany table.

In deference to Frank’s North Carolina heritage, I’ve gone with a southern thanksgiving staple, Sweet Potato Pie.

You may also like to reference these other Turkey Day favorites:

Perfect Roast Turkey

Villa Montana Ham

My own North and South Stuffing and Butternut Squash

And finally, Sour Cream Pecan Pie

Bon Appetit!

Sweet Potato Pie

Ingredients 

  • 2 1/4 cups cooked mashed sweet potatoes
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup packaged French vanilla instant pudding
  • 3/4 cup evaporated milk
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 6 tablespoons butter or margarine, softened
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons vanilla extract
  • 1 9-inch unbaked pie shell

Instructions

In a large bowl combine all ingredients and beat at medium speed until well blended. Spread evenly into unbaked pie shell. Bake at 450 degrees F for 10 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 40 minutes longer or until set. Cool on wire rack. If desired, garnish with whipped cream, raspberries and mint leaves.

Servings 8

Recipe Source: North Carolina Farm Bureau