Frank Lucas was an organized-crime boss in Harlem during the 1970s. Frank Lucas sold heroin that he’d smuggled into the country in the coffins of dead American soldiers. Frank Lucas claims to have brought in over $1 million a day selling drugs. Frank Lucas was a bad man.
But for a time, Frank Lucas, the subject of the new film “American Gangster,” very well might have been the living embodiment of the American dream.
“It’s called ‘American Gangster,’ understand?” Brooklyn rapper RZA declared. “We’ve all got this American dream. Black, white, Asian … it doesn’t matter. I think [Lucas] really fits that American dream, even though it’s the negative side. He brought his whole family up from the South. Thanksgiving, everybody got a turkey. All that kind of stuff is the American dream.”
If the nobility and spirit of the American dream is big enough to include an illicit success story like Frank Lucas’, then it certainly should also include good stories like those belonging to RZA and his “Gangster” co-star Common, both acclaimed rappers striving to pen new careers as actors. And both have come a long way from their humble beginnings.
“Growing up in New York and being chased by the [cops]. Getting the chance to play a detective — you know, all these cops [were on set] trying to give us the right dialogue, the police lingo,” RZA recalled. “I was like, ‘Yo! Some years ago I wouldn’t want to be around y’all.’ ”
“We all got good and bad in us,” Common echoed. “I’m not perfect. I come from the streets of Chicago at the end of the day. You know, I connect with that too.”
Like Frank Lucas, RZA said he possesses the uncommon fearlessness and tenacity necessary to achieve success.
“I’m a man from the street that started with zero, organized himself, organized my people — over half a billion myself just from the records sales we’ve been doing,” he exclaimed. “But it came from having that determination, having that will.”
That’s a quality both RZA and Common have had to maintain as they strive for respect as actors, even though they’ve already made their names in music. While singers from Barbara Streisand to Jennifer Hudson have long found acting a natural and successful transition, it seems like lately there is an unprecedented number of rappers and R&B singers — including 50 Cent , Chris Brown and T.I. — making their way to the big screen.
Turns out, those names don’t mean much when it comes to Hollywood.
“I built up a name in the music industry, [but] it doesn’t ride into the movie industry. I’m still going on auditions,” Common said. “It’s a humbling experience, and I kind of appreciate it. It gets you back to the basics of life. You got to work for what you want.”
RZA also acknowledge the challenge. “You definitely gotta go for what you want,” he added. “Just because we got a name doesn’t mean we’re supposed to be on the screen. Remember Sam Jackson [said] rappers shouldn’t be acting? [He was] right in a way. He inspired me. I studied [acting], read books, took coaches — all to make sure I’m not disrespecting the craft.”
Or, for that matter, disrespecting his fellow actors, who, in the case of “American Gangster,” include two-time Academy Award winner Denzel Washington (“The king,” said Common) and one-time winner Russell Crowe (“A real man,” said RZA). Getting a chance to work with both is just part of the dream, they confessed.
“When you’re in the presence of certain people like that, you know you’re doing something right,” Common exclaimed.
Frank Lucas had an American dream. His success story rightfully ended in pain, misery and a very long jail sentence. RZA and Common both could have gone down that road. But their dreams? They’re just getting started.
“I like playing the bad guy,” Common said, smiling. “[But] my daughter said I need to play a good guy now. … I’m trying.”
Check out everything we’ve got on “American Gangster.”
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