Justifiable Homicide: Black Youth in Peril (FCN, 11-27-2007)

�American Gangster� the movie, starring award-winning actor Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, a 1970s New York drug kingpin. Photo: americangangster.net

LOS ANGELES (FinalCall.com) – Black Entertainment Television (BET) has won higher ratings and critical acclaim for its “American Gangster” series on the rise and fall of Black criminals. But in the wake of the docudramas and a hit movie of the same name, many are concerned about the portrayal of Blacks and images they believe help inspire youth to destructive behavior.

BET initially indicated the show’s purpose was to “explore without glorifying and investigate without celebrating” the criminal minds of the infamous men featured during the weekly, one-hour shows, which are broadcast at several different times.


According to executive producer Nelson George, dope dealers and criminals like “Freeway” Ricky Ross, Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, Troy and Dino Smith, the Chambers Brothers and Lorenzo “Fat Cat” Nichols were chosen because of legendary crimes with national and sometimes international dimensions.

BET’s “American Gangster” debuted last November with the second best numbers in the network’s history with a 1.6 rating and 1.6 million viewers in 1.3 million households, according to Nielsen Media Research.

“American Gangster” the movie, starring award-winning actor Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, a 1970s New York drug kingpin, opened number one in November with $16.5 million.It ranked seventh among the all-time top 10 openings for R-rated films and by its first weekend, brought in more than $47 million, despite being released early via the Internet and bootlegged DVDs, which were of unusually high quality.

“Someone high in that access wanted this to be widely seen amongst people, who maybe couldn’t have afforded to go and see it in a first run theater, not only amongst the national populations but in particular amongst the so-called urban or ghetto youth,” said Keidi Obi Awadu (aka the Conscious Rasta), of LIB Radio, an internet broadcasting company and media literacy organization.

Mr. Awadu believes the American media is obsessed with the notion of a “Black gangster.” People should remember that historically Black heroin distributors were working in league with White drug lords, but were given license to operate only if their lethal products were distributed to Black people, he said.

The lack of visible, vocal protest against the project’s negative impact on Black male youth was suppressed by love for the movie’s leading man, Mr. Awadu argued.“We know that the choice of Denzel Washington as the character to play this is going to make us particularly vulnerable to assault.We loved Denzel Washington in his portrayal of Malcolm X, Steven Biko–two characters in our pantheon of heroes,” he said. That love and credibility transfers even when he portrays lesser characters, such as those in “American Gangster” and “Training Day,” where Mr. Washington won an Oscar for his portrayal of a crooked cop, argued Mr. Awadu.

“American Gangster” the series, proves now that BET is White-owned, it will continue to undermine the core fundamental values of Black youth, critics charge.

Five minutes of fame on TV and in movies is enough glory for young men thirsty for attention, no matter how they achieve it, said Fareed Thomas, who was recently released from a California penitentiary. The BET episodes showcase the money and so-called good times the gangsters enjoyed, but a fraction of the time was spent on how they went to jail, Mr. Thomas said.

Historically, American gangsters have been European and portrayed in films like “The Godfather,” “Scarface,” “Bugsy,” “King of New York,” “Casino,” “Gangs of New York” and “Good Fellas.”

The problem, said Mark, a L.A.-based gang member, comes with the BET series singling out Black men and ignoring the criminal history of gangsters of various ethnicities.

“It is hypocritical to a point.If BET just didn’t do it as Black, that would be one thing, but if you’re going to showcase one gangster, then showcase them all.Why is BET only stopping at the Black gangster?Do only Black gangsters go to prison?” he said.

Mark, not his real name, who spoke to The Final Call on condition of anonymity, believes the gangster image is perpetuated to keep people coming to prison. “They are creating jobs for their people.We can’t be mad at them for marketing; but we can’t fall into their trap and become their commodity,” he said.

Considered a “gangsta” in his younger days, Mark pointed out the difference between true gangsters and youth who are gang members.“In these corporate buildings, where they’re laying down certain structures, Bush and Cheney, that’s the real gangsters.Look at Halliburton or how they took the presidency, that was gangsterism and they let you know they took it and you can’t do anything about it,” he said.

The Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan, of the Nation of Islam, has long decried the violent and negative portrayals of Blacks, especially young Black men in movies and in music. In recent weeks, the Minister has devoted a series of lectures to the subject. American Gangster, the blockbuster movie and the BET series, have been a direct target of his warning and analysis. “That movie was designed to inspire you to a gangster life. The whole series on BET is designed to inspire young, Black men to more criminal conduct as though there are no white gangsters.But this is a focus on Black gangsters and they are now calling you ‘the American Gangster,’” Min. Farrakhan said in his Nov. 11 lecture. “How did you get to be an American gangster when you are not an American at all?”he asked.

A 1930s probe of the regulation of cinema titled, “Children, Cinema and Censorship:From Dracula to the Dead End Kids,” indicates that concerns about media impact to children were not much different than today.When the Great Depression caused American cinema attendance to drop from 100 million to under 40 million, studios began producing talking movies to fill seats, without regard for censors, reformers or moral watchdogs.Protests forced changes in regulation and shifts in power between film makers, censors, licensing authorities and others.The advent of crime or gangster films was denounced because of their perceived impact on juvenile delinquency.Despite evidence that children mimicked the speech and mannerism in the films, motivated by money, Hollywood produced 78 gangster movies between 1930 and 1933.

“These corporations that control the media know very well that they are sacrificing a whole generation of youth when they come out and they promote these movies with these pathological behaviors,” said Rahman Shabazz, an environmentalist and concerned parent, told The Final Call.

“The problem isn’t ‘American Gangster,’ but a nationwide systemic racism that feeds on our children, starting from the schools and leading into the probation department and then the prisons,” he said.“It’s interwoven through all of the institutions of people’s activity in the U.S. and that means the church, bank, Wall Street, the criminal justice and legal systems, grocery stores, fishing industries.Everything!”

If Blacks flexed their billion dollar spending power, stronger institutions which serve their interests could be created and BET and others could be brought to their knees, Mr. Shabazz said.