The key to understanding Frank Lucas (brilliantly play by Denzel Washington), the real-life-drug-pusher-anti-hero of Ridley Scott’s American Gangster, is his likability. His likability stems in part from the fact that he cared (in a morally skewed way) about issues like respect, reputation, and family. His likeability is part and parcel of his charisma.
Frank Lucas’s charisma comes from the mysterious place most charisma comes f rom. Although most people, even modern psychologists, do not know that charisma comes from a willingness to accept the adulation of others. Note, this is very different from being dependent on the adulation of others, which simply makes one unattractively needy and insecure. Being open or available to adulation, however, is a very attractive quality (this is because greater than the soul’s drive to be liked or loved is the soul’s drive to behold something it can like or love.) People who are open to being liked without needing to be liked have charisma. People like Frank Lucas.
The story that Mr. Scott so capably tells over a two and a half hour period (yes, this movie is worth seeing,) is the juxtaposition of respectability, family values, and charisma, with violence, murder, and criminal behavior, all of which are personified in the lead character.
From a spiritual point of view this addresses the moral ambiguity of material life. Sometimes good people do bad things and bad people do good things. The conundrum raised in the film is which one of these roles describes drug pusher Frank Lucas and which one is his opposition, law man Richie Roberts (well played by Russell Crowe?)
Is Frank (loving son, doting-genteel husband) doing bad things? And is Richie (womanizer, negligent father) doing good things? Or is Frank evil incarnate sometimes displaying acts of civility while Ritchie is the personification of goodness sometimes exercising really bad judgment?
This brings up at least two questions:
1) Who is the good guy doing bad things, and who is the bad guy doing good things?
2) Is the road to hell paved with good intentions?
According to the laws of physics your karma is attributed mostly to your behavior and not the consequences of your behavior. What is less clear is the role of intention.
For example the law man’s intent is to protect the innocents from the ravages of the drug pusher. Yet this is not the consequence of his actions. After the law man excises the drug dealer at the top of the pyramid, disorder is created, more violence than normal ensues and the market for the drugs and destruction of innocents remains unabated. From this perspective the results of his actions were hardly good. But his intentions were good (i.e. positive, healthy, moral…)
So Richie had good intentions, along with a mix of good and bad behaviors. And Frank Lucas had bad intentions with a mix of bad and good behavior.
So what’s what (and who’s going to hell?)
The yogic philosophy has a very interesting way of addressing these issues. In the yoga perspective intentions are split into two camps: spiritual and material. Spiritual intentions are absolute or non-dual. This is because anything connected to God, or Spirit, or the absolute, inherently develops similar characteristics. So any one who purely longs or intends to serve or connect to God experiences commensurate bliss (this, by the way, is a yogic way to test the depth of a person’s spiritual advancement – and also by the way, ignorance is not bliss.) Material intentions are dualistic and relative. They offer the hope of peace but cannot deliver it. If your intentions are good they will inspire good behavior and eventually good behavior brings some material reward, but not peace of mind. If your intentions are bad they will inform bad behavior and of course no peace of mind. So either way material intentions lead to stress, dissatisfaction, and unhappiness. So who is going to hell? According to Vedic philosophy material life is hell. Even if you get to a heavenly station for a time chances are you will eventually work your way back to hellish conditions. In today’s movie both guys are going to hell; Frank Lucas is just going to get there faster.
In this sense the road to hell is paved with material intentions. A point that writer Steven Zaillian and director Ridley Scott bring home with the movie’s rich juxtaposition of moral ambiguities, as in a cop who is selfless enough to give up sharing a million dollars in cash for the sake of honor, but is not sufficiently selfless to be available to raise his son.
As to who is who (question number 1 – good guy doing bad vs. bad guy doing good.) From the Yoga point of view, Frank and Richie are both materialistic men. They are both going to reap the consequences of their behavior; some of which was bad, and some of which is good.
Overall this is good film making, by a film maker who clearly has the depth and skill that has deservedly placed him in the pantheon of Hollywood greats.
What makes the movie even more compelling is that it is based on real people and historical events. The real Frank Lucas was a violent, evil, charismatic, likable son of a bitch. And the real Richie Roberts was an honest, super bright, law abiding son of a bitch.