American Gangster: The Complete Second Season
R1 - America - Paramount Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Jeremiah Chin (5th July 2008).
The Show

When I first got “American Gangster: The Complete Second Season” (2007) in the mail, I was scared. If didn’t like the 2007 movie “American Gangster,” even though I really like Denzel Washington, how am I going to deal with the BET TV series that’s piggybacking off of the title? I quickly learned that not only did I like the series better than the movie that it shares a name with, but the first season actually premiered in November 2006, a full year before the film.

“American Gangster: The Complete Second Season” is an well-constructed, in-depth documentary series about many famous African American drug lords, gang leaders and criminals. Each episode focuses in on a specific person or group, even going so far as to interview famous African American gangsters and drug lords like Frank Lucas, the basis for the 2007 film, and Melvin Williams, whose exploits inspired the HBO series “The Wire” (2002).

At first blush, I think the series is a little falsely marketed with the subtitle “True Crimes. Real Consequences.” on the cover of the DVD. The series isn’t so much about the criminal justice system; it’s about delving into the culture and moments of time in which these men existed. Through interviews with family members, related persons, and the men themselves, “American Gangster” delves into what drew these men into this lifestyle. I understand that the emphasis on consequences on the cover is to try and avoid the image that the series is glorifying these men (BET is already criticized enough for it’ depiction of Black popular culture in academia and “The Boondocks” (2005)), but the way the series builds through the life stories of men like Lucas is impressive.

In terms of the people appearing in the series, first and foremost, Ving Rhames does a surprisingly good job as narrator, taking the tone of the series very seriously, not overly dramatizing the material and keeping the inflection interesting along with the material. The interviews in the series are really interesting; they cover most of the possible angles for the stories. In the DC snipers episode, the series has interviews not only with family members fairly closely connected to the snipers and also with Charles Moose, the Montgomery County Police Chief who was the local authority in charge of the operation. There is an emphasis on the consequences on the actions of these men, especially in the episodes covering gangsters and drug dealers, which is important, but I think the interviews speak more to the reasons or causes behind these men’s life choices. At one point in their interviews, both Williams and Lucas mention an anger with the system that drove them into the drug game, but not as an attempt to excuse or legitimize their actions. They also a pursuit of drugs with little regard for the ramifications the drugs had on their communities; rather they were more concerned with the social mobility that the money provided them. These kinds of connections really pique my interest and make it a worthwhile series.

I think there’s a lot to see in this series and it’s definitely worth a look or two. The most disappointing aspect of the disc may be that after watching the Frank Lucas episode my first thought was, “hey that could be an interesting movie.” In the end, the documentary series is well organized, fascinating, and does a good job of covering a large story in the span of just an episode. Despite the “Real Consequences” subtitle, the consequences and the actions of these men are portrayed as they actually happened and, as with the series as a whole, it impressively manages not to be heavy handed in the process.

Here’s a rundown of the episodes with some brief descriptions:

Episode 1: “Philly Black Mafia” – covers what has been dubbed as the Philadelphia Black Mafia, apparently based out of Nation of Islam Temple #12 in Philadelphia during from the 60’s through the 80’s.

Episode 2: “Larry Hoover” – looks at the leader of the Chicago gang “Gangster Disciples” and investigates the sincerity of his apparent change in life-view towards peace while he has been imprisoned.

Episode 3: “Melvin Williams” – in-depth interview with Williams and Maryland Police officers concerning his rise to power as a gambler, hustler and eventual drug lord in Baltimore.

Episode 4: “The DC Snipers” – covers the development of the mindset of the John Muhammad and Lee Malvo and the evolution of the police search for the two men.

Episode 5: “Frank Lucas” – interviews with Lucas and his former attorney / narcotics officer Richard Roberts frame his story that covers the entirety of his life, from childhood through his rise to power and his current situation after being released from jail.

Episode 6: “Felix Mitchell” – an examination of “Oakland’s first major heroin kingpin” from the story of his relationship with the Black Panther Party to his eventual, suspicious, death in a prison stabbing.

Episode 7: “Jeff Fort and the Blackstone Rangers” - the story of the Blackstone Rangers, a street movement or violent gang depending on who you ask, “more dangerous than the Black Panther Party” and their leader’s eventual relationship with Libyan dictator Muammar Gadaffi.

Episode 8: “Chaz Williams” – the story of a prolific bank robber, who supposedly robbed over 60 banks in a matter of years, who turned himself into a successful music entrepreneur after being released from prison.

Episode 9: “Rayful Edmond III” – covers Edmonds who employed over 150 people in becoming the most prominent cocaine and crack dealer in Washington D.C., the situation of D.C. politically and culturally, along with Edmond’s deal with the Federal Government.

Episode 10: “Kenneth ‘Supreme’ McGriff” – an investigation of McGriff, whose nick name comes from being a member of the 5% sect of the Nation of Islam, who went from New York drug dealer to producer to prisoner.

Video

“American Gangster” is presented in a 1.33:1 fullscreen aspect ratio, which is a little disappointing considering most of the interviews and the file footage are shown letterboxed in a 1.85:1 widescreen, which to me just indicates a lazy or rushed DVD transfer that didn’t put a premium on the quality. Otherwise, the quality of the video in full screen is fine, there’s no grain and the lighting in all the interviews comes through well, and the archive footage looks fairly well cleaned up.

Audio

Presented in English Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo, the series sounds exactly like it would on TV and sounds pretty good. The levels in the series are good between the background music, the interviews and the narration. Nothing sounds off or out of place, though it’s a little disappointing that BET declined to include a subtitle track.

Extras

Paramount has included some extras across the three disc set there are four interviews and some bonus trailers. Below is a closer look.

DISC ONE:

Melvin Williams" extended interview runs for 31 minutes and 48 seconds, this is a near episode-length interview with Williams, edited a small bit with chapter selection as Williams gives his life story and talks about his career both in drugs, into prison, and now HBO’s “The Wire.”

Then there are a set of startup bonus trailers for:

- “BET Hip Hop Awards 2007” runs for 35 seconds.
- “BlacKout” runs for 2 minutes and 38 seconds.
- “American Gangster: Season One” runs for 1 minute and 6 seconds.

DISC TWO:

First is the “Frank Lucas" extended interview which runs for 22 minutes and 46 seconds. An extended version of the in-studio interview where Lucas relates his encounters with the Klu Klux Klan and the Police, relates stories about his family, his rise to prominence and about the (then) upcoming movie.

Frank Lucas Jr." interview and tour runs for 26 minutes and 49 seconds, features the in-studio interview with Lucas Jr. and a brief tour of the neighborhood where Lucas got his start. Lucas Jr. talks about his father’s life and lifestyle, philanthropy and drug dealing, also does some freestyling which is not so great.

DISC THREE:

The “Bo Baines" extended interview runs 3 minutes and 50 seconds, in this brief interview Baines disputes his charges and allegations about the Philly Black Mafia.

Packaging

Three Slim Amray cases within a cardboard box sleeve.

Overall

The Show: A- Video: B- Audio: B- Extras: B Overall: B

 


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