Not to be confused with the new Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe movie of the same name, "American Gangster" is a BET series that chronicles the stories of some of the biggest African-American criminals of all time, including druglords, thieves, and gang leaders. Each episode of the series unfolds like a documentary, with interviews with conspirators, police, witnesses and many others who were involved in some way with the crimes. The series is narrated by Ving Rhames.
While I was dismayed that there were times here-and-there when the show seemed to be glorifying these stories, "American Gangster" does certainly go into a great level of detail as to how these stories unfolded. For example, "Troy and Dino Smith" focuses on two young men who would go on from being teen crooks in the San Francisco area to being behind major robberies, including a massive jewel heist that saw the two nabbing nearly five million dollars worth of jewels. After becoming outlaws, Troy even became offended with his portrayal of his story on "America's Most Wanted", writing "Wanted" producer John Walsh. Dino went to NYC, calling himself a "ghost writer", as he remained a fugitive and wrote journals as he made his way around the city. The discussion of the police case is interesting, and the case the police eventually make - and push for, despite the fact that there is evidence to the contrary - is surprising.
Another episode looks at the Chambers brothers, children of sharecroppers who grew up in one of the poorest areas of the country. As adults, the two found themselves in Detroit running a crack empire that - at one point - was making more selling crack than Chrysler was selling cars. The documentary looks at how their empire was run - starting with a successful liquor store - and how they became a prime target of the government's "War on Drugs".
Other episodes focus on Stanley "Tookie" Williams (the leader of the infamous Crips street gang, who was eventually nominated for a Nobel Peace prize when he wrote books while in jail trying to help young men off the streets), "Freeway" Ricky Ross (a former athlete who turned into a L.A. crack king, and who eventually was connected to the Iran-Contras scandal), Leroy "Nicky" Barnes (a drug kingpin and government snitch, Barnes ran an empire of heroin pushes in Harlem in the 50's through the 70's and finally, Lorenzo Nichols (a drug lord in Queens in the 80's.)
Again, while I had issues with the series and how it occasionally seemed to be glorifying some of these stories, I do have to say that the amount of detail that it does into the rise and fall of these criminals is impressive.
1. 1- 1 28 Nov 06 Stanley "Tookie" Williams
2. 1- 2 5 Dec 06 "Freeway" Ricky Ross
3. 1- 3 12 Dec 06 Leroy "Nicky" Barnes
4. 1- 4 19 Dec 06 Troy & Dino Smith
5. 1- 5 26 Dec 06 The Chambers Brothers
6. 1- 6 2 Jan 07 Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols
VIDEO: The series is presented by Paramount in 1.33:1 full-frame. With a lot of archive footage mixed in with new interviews, image quality does vary quite a bit throughout. The newer interviews remain mildly crisp, but archive footage can look soft, fuzzy and occasionally mildly worn. No artifacting or edge enhancement was seen. Colors looked natural during most newer footage, but archive footage could look faded or otherwise problematic. Overall, the show looks about as good as it can probably look here.
SOUND: The show's stereo soundtrack offered crisp interviews and musical score.
EXTRAS: Additional interviews, a sneak peek of season 2 and interview with the son of Stanley "Tookie" Williams.
Final Thoughts: While I had issues with the series and how it occasionally seemed to be glorifying some of these stories, I do have to say that the amount of detail that it does into the rise and fall of these criminals is impressive. The DVD set offers minimal extras and satisfactory audio/video quality. Those with an interest in crime tales may want to look into this set.