BET and Paramount has released American Gangster: The Complete First Season, a sometimes successful, sometimes wrong-headed documentary look at six of the most notorious African-American crime figures of the latter half of the 20th century. Episodes look at Stanley "Tookie" Williams, "Freeway" Ricky Ross, Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, Troy and Dino Smith, The Chambers Brothers, and Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols. When it sticks to the facts, and side-steps questionable rationales for the illegality of these amoral criminals, American Gangster: The Complete First Season is fairly entertaining and informative, with an admirable attempt (not always successful, however) to present the harsh realities of the gangster lifestyle, a lifestyle that is not-so-incomprehensibly admired and emulated today by millions of kids (America has always, perversely, been fascinated with criminals).
But when American Gangster: The Complete First Season tries to point fingers at larger social issues and problems as excuses for the criminal activities of these "legendary" figures (particularly in the first two episodes on Williams and Ross), it falls flat on its face with vague suppositions and outrageous rationalizations for men who were in reality, despite their one-time wealth and notoriety, nothing more than common murderers and drug dealers.
Despite the text on the back of the DVD box, American Gangster: The Complete First Season isn't what I would call a "docudrama" (there's no scripted, fictionalized storyline). The front cover, showing narrator Ving Rhames in what looks to be period gangster regalia, seems to also imply that he somehow "stars" in the show (in fact, he never appears on screen). American Gangster: The Complete First Season is rather a straightforward, unremarkably shot documentary, complete with talking heads interviews with former gang bangers, police officers, journalists and historians, while a thumping music track wells up to underline the ominous mileposts in these thugs' careers.
The last four episodes of this season do quite a good job of sticking to the facts of each figure's career, and dispassionately (for the most part) discussing the ramifications of their actions. And to American Gangster: The Complete First Season's credit, their conclusions are that the net results of these actions are entirely negative. Anyone watching American Gangster: The Complete First Season should get the message that killing people, stealing, and selling drugs will not, in the long run, improve your life (a fairly ironic message coming from BET, which has made millions celebrating the faux-gangsta lifestyle in their music videos). As well, American Gangster: The Complete First Season tries to make sure there are law-enforcement officials and journalists represented as well, to counter some of the more ridiculous assertions about these criminals' so-called philanthropic activities and their dubious-at-best positions as role-models for the African-American community (the one element that's really missing from American Gangster: The Complete First Season are testimonies from victims of these "legends").
The episode on Troy and Dino Smith, the polite, charismatic, intelligent burglars who pulled off the biggest jewel heist in San Francisco history, is probably the most successful segment of American Gangster: The Complete First Season because it tells their story simply and without a lot of specious generalizing about their motives. Quite simply, they did what they did, as everyone states in the doc, not because they came from a stressful home life or neglectful parents (they didn't), but because it was easier to get what they wanted, by stealing. They liked the excitement, they enjoyed the money, and when they were busted, they understood they had essentially wasted their own great potential.
The opening two segments of American Gangster: The Complete First Season are a different story, with the standard "the System made Tookie a killer and Freeway a drug dealer" cliches trotted out for yet another go-around. Rationalizations for their crimes are rampant throughout the docs, with cohorts in crime attesting to how kind the individuals were in real life, and that "business is business," and that America made them violent because it didn't give them any other options, and all that other kooky sociological blather that nobody buys anymore. Despite open admissions by a vicious killer like Tookie Williams that "we terrorized everybody. We made it a living hell," his ex-wife and a close associate continue to assert he was merely reacting against a crooked system, and that he was a force for good in the neighborhood (his nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, which are trotted out in the doc as if they really meant something, need not even be discussed here). Of course, the iron-clad, never-fail rebuttal to such a ridiculous rationalization is to merely look at the vast majority of people who grew up in the same neighborhoods, the same circumstances, who didn't turn to crime. In Williams' case, the doc rather astoundingly asserts that these gangsters were "orphans of the civil rights movement" (as well as jaw-droppingly claiming that the terrorist organization the Black Panthers were the equivalent of a "Robin Hood" political action committee), instead of common criminals with uncommon success. Totally "out there" sympathizers like Tom Hayden assert that "self-hate inflicted by the system, is what made him violent," a gross generalization that tries to excuse his inexcusable behavior.
The Ricky Ross segment is even more laughable, trotting out the old saw about the CIA introducing crack to Los Angeles to indirectly fund Reagan's Contra activities (a charge by the late journalist Gary Webb that was, at best, oversimplified and largely unsubstantiated -- as well as discredited by other journalists and investigators), while trying to convince us that Ross was somehow compelled by the "System" to become a drug dealer (of course, no one in the doc explains who - or how - anyone twisted his arm that first time to "make" him sell drugs). Conspiracy theorist wacko Maxine Waters speaks on behalf of the drug dealer (calling him a solicitous "Rick," as if he's her kindly next-door-neighbor), and all credibility for the doc's thesis goes right out the window. The outrage the doc has for its tenuous, largely unsubstantiated attack on who, if anybody, force-fed crack to Los Angeles, is far greater than the pass that Ross gets for his part in popularizing the drug, and the countless hundreds of people who no doubt died because they bought crack from him. The first thing you learn in the joint is that everybody is innocent, and second, that everybody has a story. Well, Ross isn't innocent, and American Gangster: The Complete First Season's story about his involvement with popularizing crack in Los Angeles, is inherently dishonest.
Here are six, 40-minute episodes of American Gangster: The Complete First Season, as described on the slimcases:
Stanley "Tookie" Williams
Stanley "Tookie" Williams' life reads like a history of Los Angeles gang warfare. Follow this complex "gangster superstar" from cold-blooded criminal to Nobel Peace Prize nominee.
"Freeway" Ricky Ross
Illiterate but physically gifted, "Freeway" Ricky Ross went from would-be star athlete to L.A. crack king. Witness his rise and fall in the drug trade and his shadowy connection to the U.S. government's Iran-Contra scandal.
Leroy "Nicky" Barnes
See how drug kingpin and government "snitch" Leroy "Nicky" Barnes carved out an empire as one of the most infamous heroin pushers in Harlem during the '50s, '60s, and '70s.
Troy and Dino Smith
Their exploits include the biggest jewel heist in San Francisco history. Explore the careers of Troy and Dino Smith as they go from teen crooks to masterminds behind some of the most sophisticated crimes in the Bay Area.
The Chambers Brothers
Discover how four brothers known as the First Family of Crime rose from meager beginnings as the sons of Arkansas sharecroppers to forge a $50 million-a-year crack empire.
Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols
Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols reigned as a drug lord over the lawless streets of Southeast Queens in the '80s - until a policeman's violent murder sparked a chain reaction that would topple him from power.
The full screen, 1.33:1 video image for American Gangster: The Complete First Season is fine, with a sharp, clean image but with minor compression issues.
The Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo audio mix is entirely adequate for this documentary series. English close-captions are available.
Disc one features some extended interviews for the various segments, running 27 minutes in total. As well, there's a 10 minute sneak peek at the coming Season Two. Disc two includes a 51-minute interview with Travon Williams, the son of Tookie Williams.
Personal responsibility for one's own actions is largely given a pass in the first two episodes of American Gangster: The Complete First Season, but when the six-part documentary sticks to the known facts about various gangsters profiled here, it's a relatively balanced look at these criminals and their careers. Anyone looking for a glorification of the gangster lifestyle may be sobered by the end result of every one of these "legends" -- they all wound up in the joint, with their lives destroyed, and hundreds (if not thousands) of victims suffering from their violent acts and drug dealing. But in addition to this admirable (if probably largely ineffectual) attempt to de-glamorize this violent subculture, a whole lot of rationalizations for criminal behavior come down, so be prepared. I recommend American Gangster: The Complete First Season.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.