‘American Gangster’ Reality Check: Separating Fact From Fiction In The Box-Office Smash

How many years did Frank Lucas serve in prison? Did he roll on his fellow drug dealers? Here's the real story.

“American Gangster” screenwriter Steven Zaillian is really good with the pen — seriously good. Aside from writing the Ridley Scott-directed film that chronicles the rise and fall of drug kingpin Frank Lucas , Zaillian also wrote the screenplays for “Schindler’s List” (which garnered him an Academy Award), along with “Awakenings” and “Gangs of New York” (both of which were Oscar-nominated).

But maybe Zaillian is too good at his job. In recent weeks, Lucas and his foe-turned-friend Richie Roberts (the Jersey detective played by Russell Crowe in the flick), along with a number of others — ranging from Nicky Barnes (one of Lucas’ fellow drug dealers, portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr.) to former New Jersey law-enforcement officials — have claimed details in “American Gangster” aren’t exactly true to life.

Real life can’t be as exciting as a fictional movie, right? So we’re not mad at you, Steven. You had a movie to write. But with all the back-and-forth, it’s becoming pretty difficult to figure out the truth.

How many years in prison did Lucas actually serve? Did he snitch on corrupt cops, his own associates or both?

Lucas has sniped that Roberts couldn’t catch a cold in response to the film’s claim that the former Jersey detective took him down. And Roberts’ former law-enforcement colleagues say they were more instrumental to the case than Crowe’s character in the film.

Even the wife of Lucas’ so-called mentor, Bumpy Johnson, has piped in discounting Lucas’ claim that he was Johnson’s driver for 15 years before the legendary Harlem gangster died in his arms. “I don’t agree with anything Frank Lucas has said,” Mayme Johnson told the Philadelphia Daily News. “To me, he’s a sick man. I think he’s a total liar. I’ve thought about reaching out to him and punching him in his face, knocking out his teeth. He’s a sick man.”

Here, we take a look at the disputes and attempt to offer a reality check:

Frank Lucas

In the film, the Denzel Washington character is an illiterate but dapper man of conviction who is eternally loyal to Bumpy Johnson. According to Lucas, Johnson died in his arms one night, and as the next-in-line to run the Harlem dope business, the North Carolina transplant took charge of Uptown before Roberts took him down. Lucas received a sentence of 70 years to life, but ended up serving four years … or was it seven?

Lucas On His Literacy: “Lemme set this straight,” he told MTV News recently. “I can set this straight for once and all. I went to pharmacy school way back when, I think in the ’50s. I couldn’t read a letter [they gave me], and I cried all night. I had to get somebody to read the letter for me. I got up the next morning, and I knocked the school door down to tell them to let me in there: ‘I got to learn how to read.’ They took me in, and [eventually] I got my diploma.”

Barnes On Lucas’ Threads: In the documentary “Mr. Untouchable,” Barnes mocks Lucas’ unrefined ways and claims he was more elegantly dressed than the “country boy.”

Mayme Johnson On Lucas’ Relationship With Her Husband: In her upcoming memoir, “Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband, Ellsworth ‘Bumpy’ Johnson,” Mayme says that her beau suffered a heart attack while dining at a Harlem, New York, restaurant and died in the arms of his childhood friend, Junie Byrd; she says Bumpy was not with Lucas in an appliance store when he passed, as the movie recounts.

Roberts On Lucas’ Cooperation: In interviews, Lucas has grumpily avoided follow-up questions on exactly who he turned against: cops or colleagues. He’s only stated that the movie’s representation, in which his character turns on crooked police officers in return for a lenient sentence, is correct. Lucas told MTV News that he served only four years of that sentence. Upon his release, however, Lucas was again sentenced and served seven years but was released early in exchange for information. In an interview with The Associated Press, when Roberts was asked if Lucas only turned on cops and not fellow dope dealers, he responded: “Absolutely not. He gets mad every time I tell the truth.”

Richie Roberts

The Russell Crowe character is portrayed in the film as a driven, compulsive law man who doggedly pursues Lucas — in spite of his failing marriage and adulterous ways — across the state line from New Jersey to New York and single-handily drives the investigation as he collects a team of rogue detectives for the big takedown. After knocking over Lucas, Crowe’s Roberts becomes an attorney and represents Lucas, and eventually the two become friends from working together.

Three Former New Jersey Cops On Roberts As The Leading Hero: “We spent nearly two years risking our lives on that case, and then we see a guy who had no interest before we made the arrests take the credit,” Ed Jones sneered in an interview with the New York Daily News. “We’re angry.” According to Jones, he and Al Spearman and Ben Abruzzo led the investigation while Roberts was already a prosecutor. In the same interview, Roberts conceded that the movie blurred the lines regarding the timeline between his days on the beat and his later time behind the desk. “Sure, they used a little literary license,” he said. Said Lucas: “I’m not going to credit them with getting me. Those three cops couldn’t catch a cold.”

Lucas On Roberts’ Pursuit: “Richie Roberts couldn’t arrest his mother,” he told MTV News.

High School Friend And Roberts’ Best Man On Roberts’ Personal Life: In an interview with a local New Jersey newspaper, Marty Shumsky said Roberts’ portrayal in the movie was on the up and up and that his former football teammate was someone to look up to. As far as his marital woes in the film? According to Shumsky’s wife, it’s a case of fiction trumping fact. “Richie and his first wife never had children, so there was no custody battle,” Paula Shumsky told the Reno Gazette Journal. “And, to the best of our knowledge, I don’t think Richie was ever a womanizer.”

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