Crime has an enormous impact on pop culture. Crime has been a central theme in cinema, resulting in iconic movies such as Gangster Squad (2013) and Scarface (1983). According to Rafter (2006), one of the keys to the success of crime films lies in their ability to provide an escape from daily life, solve mysteries, and ponder moral choices without in fact having to make them. In addition, they tend to reflect a certain criminological theory by offering an explanation about who is a criminal, what is a crime, and what are the causes of criminal behavior.
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The aim of this paper is to analyze American Gangster (2007), Ridley Scott’s biographical crime film based on the life of Harlem’s drug kingpin Frank Lucas, through the lens of criminology. Specifically, I am going to examine how the film relies on Merton’s Institutional Strain Theory to explain criminality in terms of individual failings by depriving its characters of legitimate means to achieve the “American Dream.” After briefly summarizing the plot of American Gangster (2007), I will explain what crime is, and then introduce Strain Theory and how it informs the film.
The film unfolds in 1968 with the death of Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III), a local gangster who runs the crime scene in Harlem, New York. His right-hand man, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), decides to take over Bumpy’s business and travels to Bangkok, where he intends to acquire pure heroin right from the source. After negotiating a deal with a Chinese producer, Frank uses his cousin who owns a nightclub in Bangkok and has connections to the military, to smuggle the heroin into the US by hiding it in the coffins of the soldiers. Since there is no middleman, Lucas is able to sell his product branded as “Blue Magic”, at a lower price than his competitors. This puts him at the top of the drug trade in New York and the surrounding areas.
The other protagonist of the movie is a Newark detective, Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). After discovering $1 million in unmarked bills in the trunk of a car and turning the money in, Richie and his partner Javier Rivera (John Ortiz) earn the distrust of the entire police department. Having become a pariah, Rivera turns to heroin and dies from overdosing on Blue Magic. Captain Lou Toback (Ted Levine) decides to put together a task force to investigate who is behind this new drug. Roberts leads it.
As the film moves along, we witness how Frank deals with potential threats such as the Italian mafia boss Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante), whose own drug business is hurting because of Frank’s market dominance. He also deals with a group of corrupt police officers led by detective Nick Trupo (Josh Brolin), who attempt to extort money from him. Frank also has to confront rival drug dealer Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who has been selling low-quality heroin under the Blue Magic brand name. At this point, we get to see how drug trade is handled as a business, with Lucas reprimanding Barnes for “trademark infringement”: “I don’t understand why you got to take something that is perfectly good and mess it up. See, brand names mean something. Understand? Blue Magic. That’s a brand name, like Pepsi. That is a brand name. I stand behind it. I guarantee it. […] When you chop my dope down to one, two, three, four five percent and then you call it Blue Magic, that is trademark infringement. You understand what I’m saying?”
Eventually, Roberts’ task force arrests Jimmy Zee (Malcolm Goodwin), Frank’s cousin and driver, for trying to shoot a woman on the street. They agree to drop charges against him if Jimmy wears a wire and snitches on Frank. With Jimmy’s assistance, Roberts tracks down one of the planes carrying the heroin, which ultimately leads him to Frank’s drug processing facility.
The film peaks with a large shootout that ends with the arrest of Huey Lucas (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Frank’s brother and his second in command. Frank himself is arrested later when he walks out of a church. While in custody, he is offered the chance to get a shorter jail sentence if he provides the names of the corrupt cops he knows about. Left with no other choice, Frank cooperates with Roberts, resulting in the arrest and conviction of three-quarters of New York’s DEA. Frank is primarily sentenced to 70 years in prison but is reduced to 15 years due to his cooperation. The final scene shows Frank’s release in 1991 and how he walks the streets of Harlem side by side with Richie Roberts.
What is Crime?
Crime is the deviance that involves breaking the law. Deviance constitutes as breaking a norm and once doing so it invokes a negative reaction from others, specifically the public. Deviance tends to be subjective in terms of place, time, personal opinions, and power. The law is a norm that is enforced by the government. It is something that the general public and the government deems the act as punishable. Crime is not always considered deviant and deviance isn’t always considered a crime. Deviance becomes a crime once it breaks the codified criminal law. Elements of criminal behavior include the «actus reus» (i.e. guilty act), the «men’s rea» (i.e. criminal intent), the act prohibited by criminal law, concurrence (intent), causation, and the harm. Classifications of a crime can include a felony/misdemeanor, mala in se, and «mala prohibita». Felonies are the serious crimes. They are punishable by at least one year of incarceration in state prison. Misdemeanors are minor offenses with a punishment of less than one year of incarceration in a local jail. Wobblers are the ones that can be charged with either a misdemeanor or a felony. Violations/infractions are mostly minor offenses that are punishable by fines. Mala in se is the crime that is considered as “bad in themselves” (ex. murder, kidnapping, etc.), «mala prohibita» is the crime that is wrong because we, the public, say it is prohibited. Crime can happen for a variety of reasons whether it is for personality factors, environmental factors, mental health, drugs, power, etc. In the case of American Gangster (2007), each individual committed felonies while trying to achieve the American Dream through illegitimate means.
The origin of strain theory lies in the concept of anomie, proposed by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his book Suicide (1987). Anomie comes from the Greek “a nomos” meaning “without norms” (Siegel 2007, 151), but for Durkheim, it represents a state in society in which norms are no longer fully effective in regulating behavior. This happens in times of rapid social changes like those caused by war or social movements, when society’s normative structure breaks down and, as a result, people are free to pursue their selfish and greedy desires. In American Gangster (2007), the American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War provide a great example of anomie. Having been sent away from their families and being exposed to the traumatizing effects of war, they no longer feel part of society. Traditional norms have lost their meaning and do not apply to them anymore. In order to cope, soldiers turn to alcohol and drugs.
Merton’s Institutional Strain Theory
Building upon Durkheim’s theory, Robert Merton believes that all societies have a cultural structure that defines socially approved goals and the acceptable means to achieve them. The balance between these two elements, goals and means, allows people to achieve success in an appropriate way. However, too much emphasis on certain goals can pressure some people to rely on illegitimate means in an effort to achieve success.
In American society, Merton mentions there is a strong cultural emphasis on the goal of financial success. The idea that everyone has a fair and equal chance of becoming successful and wealthy if they work hard enough is at the core of the American Dream. Frank Lucas seems to share this belief: “The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work, family, never forgetting where we came from.”
According to Merton, this emphasis on success has led people to be more concerned with the pursuit of money than with the proper way to achieve this goal, going so far as to violating norms or laws. The problem lies within the American class system since minority groups do not have equal access to the educational and job opportunities needed to achieve success. As a result, these groups rely on whatever effective means to success they can find, even if they are illegitimate.
Merton identified five modes of adaptation that can occur when anomie takes effect. Each of them can be illustrated with a character from American Gangster (2007). The first one is conformity. Conformists accept both the societal goals and the legitimate means for achieving them, regardless of whether or not they succeed. This adaptation is best represented by Eva Kendo (Lymari Nadal), Frank’s wife. Having achieved success through legitimate means (marry into wealth), she fulfills the role society has set for her, becoming a housewife.
Merton’s second mode, innovation, describes individuals that accept societal goals but achieve them through illegitimate means. This adaptation is illustrated by a large number of characters, including Frank Lucas, Dominic Cattano, and Nicky Barnes. They all aspire to the same goals as any other individual pursuing the American Dream (wealth, power and status), but they obtain them through socially unaccepted methods (smuggling and selling drugs). Corrupt police officers like detective Trupo adopt a range of illegitimate means, such as accepting bribes or selling heroin confiscated from drug dealers as a shortcut to a better life.
As for Merton’s third adaptation, ritualism, it refers to individuals who reject the goals of society but accept the socially accepted means to support themselves. This adaptation is adopted by Frank Lucas after he gets released from prison. Having lost everything and finding himself in a world he doesn’t recognize, Lucas abandons the goal of financial success. As Merton states, people can move from one adaptation to another if their circumstances change.
The fourth adaptation, retreatism, is characterized by the rejection of both the cultural goals and the socially accepted means. In Merton’s words, retreatists are social dropouts that include “psychotics, pariahs, outcasts, and drug addicts”. This adaptation is exemplified by detective Javier Rivera, who becomes a drug addict after being blacklisted by the police department. Having rejected the idea of success, his only goal to obtain money for heroin is going as far as to kill and rob a drug dealer.
Rebellion, the final mode of adaptation, occurs when someone rejects both the goals and means of society. Unlike the retreatist, the rebel attempts to introduce a new social order by replacing the old goals and means with new ones. This adaptation is best represented by Detective Richie Roberts. His honesty and integrity makes him a rebel within an organization consumed by corruption. He rejects the goal of wealth and status the other cops struggle for, which is evidenced by the fact that he turned in the money found in the car. His ultimate goal is to bring down Frank’s drug empire and to uncover the widespread corruption in the police.
Conforming to Merton’s Institutional Strain Theory we can diminish crime by altering the American Dream, specifically, strengthening goals that are not based on the accumulation of wealth and power. Strengthen institutions like family, education, and being involved in the community. If we reduce poverty we can increase the opportunities for the lower class, therefore, reduce strain and crime. Former President Lyndon B. Johnson proposed the Delinquency Prevention and Control Act of 1961 in order to fight the “War on Poverty.” This act increased educational and economic opportunities for the lower class. If we had similar safety nets like some European countries (long vacations, paid parental leave, welfare payments, etc.) we can balance the economy, strengthen the relationship of family, and improve the educational system. Inputting these policies may take some time and may not be all that effective. Personally, the policies that would only be efficient would be altering the meaning of the American Dream and improving opportunities for the lower class. We need to derive ourselves from the core beliefs that happiness equates money, you got to make it all on your own (competition), and accumulating money is a measure of success. If we improved the living conditions, had more opportunities for the youth to succeed, rehabilitation programs, and stressed the fact that family and education are valuable means to achieve the American Dream, we can lower the strain and possibly crime.
American Gangster (2007) shows us the downside of the American Dream. Success is measured by money and not everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve this goal. This leads to deviance, people lacking in opportunities are willing to gain wealth through illegitimate means, that including law enforcement. The criminal justice system in the film portrayed the LAPD in the 90s. Corrupt officers made dealings with gangs (Bloods), were on corrupt political figures payroll, planted evidence, and stole drugs for money. An example of this is the Rampart Scandal, this scandal exposed 70 police officers of wrongdoing, 58 were brought before Internal Affairs, and 24 were convicted (LAPD 2004). CRASH Rampart officers had ties to bank robberies, framed members of the Temple Street Gang, and some officers were members of the Bloods.
To conclude, the film does a great job of illustrating Merton’s modes of adaptation, with innovation being the most common of all. It shows how people like Frank Lucas, who comes from a poor background, has little education, and no opportunities to succeed turn to crime.