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Is American Gangster A True Story?

Ridley Scott's epic crime film "American Gangster," starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, is one of the director's most notably well-received films from the '00s. The gripping tale of Frank Lucas' drug empire and the lawman determined to bring it down still currently sits in the top 10 of Scott's critically successful films in Rotten Tomatoes.

The director's rare venture into a criminal underworld, which was crammed with an incredible supporting cast list comprised of Josh Brolin, Chewitel Ejiofor, and Common, was also littered with details so shocking that they were almost hard to believe. How much of Scott's sprawling saga is actually true? Did one good cop in a seemingly bad town really help bring down a tyrannical drug boss, and how much shown to do so was real? Was this "American Gangster" born from the equally notorious Bumpy Johnson, and did the beginning of the end all start with a very outlandish coat? Let's crack open the case file and find out.

Was Frank Lucas a real person?

The first thing to confirm is that "American Gangster" Frank Lucas was indeed a real person who built a drug empire and was sentenced to 60 years in prison when caught. However, his connection to the equally powerful crime boss that preceded him, Bumpy Johnson, isn't quite how it's depicted in the film.

The film sees Frank as a close ally to Bumpy, being moulded by his mentor until he eventually died in his arms from health issues in the middle of an electrical appliance store. Johnson's wife, Mayme Hatcher Johnson, disputed the relationship in a 2019 interview with Planet Ill, explaining that Bumpy and Frank were not as close as the film portrayed.

"Frank Lucas was never accepted in Bumpy's circle, and to me, it's just based on a lot of lies, from what I've seen on BET and movie trailers." She also added that Frank was not present at the time of Bumpy's death: "I was in the house and he had just left me and we had watched the 'Lawrence Welk Show' that night and he decided to ride out with Junie Byrd and that's where he died, well that's where he had his heart attack. He died on his way to Harlem Hospital." This was brought to Lucas' attention shortly after in an interview with VLAD TV. He refused to argue against Mayme Hatcher Johnson's statement, only adding, "I worked for Bumpy Johnson 13 years, nine months and eight days," not the 15 years stated in the film.

Frank did kill Tango, but not in the way you think

One of the movie's most intense scenes is early on, when Frank takes the necessary steps in building his empire. After already having a heated altercation with opposing gangster Tango (played by Idris Elba), Frank unexpectedly shoots him dead before returning to a family meeting across the street for everyone to see. It's an apparent attempt to send a message to anyone watching and shows just how serious Frank was.

Incredibly, the real Frank proudly discussed this incident in New York Magazine when passing the exact location it took place. While Frank's family wasn't present as in the film, Lucas explained that he did take out one of the most intimidating figures as a declaration. "When you're in the kind of work I was in, you've got to be for real. You've got to show what you're willing to do," said Lucas. "I shot him. Four times, right through here: bam, bam, bam, bam."

That coat and hat combo was real

In the 2007 film, a pivotal element to Frank's downfall is failing to take his own advice and attending a boxing match in a 'loud' outfit. Donning a chinchilla fur coat and hat, the flashy getup draws the attention of Richie Roberts, who sets Frank on a path to bring him down. As it turns out, the poor wardrobe choice made in the film was a real one.

Following the release of his autobiography, "Original Gangster," The New York Post reported that Frank wore the $50,000 chinchilla coat and $10,000 matching hat at the Ali vs Frazer fight in 1971, catching the attention of attending officers as displayed in the film. Rather than a gift as shown in the film, the extravagant outerwear was a purchase of Frank himself, and the former crime boss accepted it as a choice he would learn to regret, labelling the night as his "biggest mistake" and "I left that fight a marked man."

Frank and Richie did remain friends

In the closing act of "American Gangster," when Lucas' world starts to fall apart around him, the former king of Harlem is forced to corroborate with Richie Roberts and blow the whistle on opposing crime families, as well as corrupt officers in the police department. The deal, which did occur, also led to the unthinkable of the lawman and the criminal he was after to become good close friends.

In an interview with NJ.com shortly after Lucas died in 2019, Richard Roberts expressed his sympathy for a man he'd spent so long chasing that he eventually welcomed as a friend, even becoming godfather to one of Frank's children. "No one is all good. No one is all bad, you try to see the good, and you try to forget the bad." Regardless of what sides of the law both were on, the friendship remained until Frank's final days — a truly unimaginable ending to the story of the "American Gangster."