In American Gangster Denzel Washington plays Frank Lucas, a man who grew very rich in the late '60s and '70s by offering purer and cheaper street drugs than his competitors--thereby turning Harlem's already poor and dispossessed residents into little more than walking automatons.
American Gangster is doing healthy box office, undoubtedly fueled by the star turns of Washington and Russell Crowe, and a plot that so plainly pits good against evil.
It's a timeless tale of power, of characters bigger than life, of the advent of a new age in organized crime--the kind of explosive story that could take place only in New York City, and in a storied neighborhood like Harlem.
"It happened here too," says Sean Patrick Griffin, author of Black Brothers Inc., a fastidiously researched and recently updated book that chronicles the uber-violence that took place in Philadelphia in the '70s. That violence came at the hands of what's become known in Philadelphia as the Black Mafia, a tightly organized band of thugs that rose to power around the same time as Frank Lucas in Harlem. The Philadelphia Black Mafia bosses and their lieutenants featured dozens of unlikely American gangsters.
"Yes, the same thing that happened in Harlem happened here," says Griffin. "It happened in a lot of major cities, but maybe especially here."
This week The Philadelphia Inquirer published a two-part series by George Anastasia, the paper's longtime organized crime reporter, on Alton "Ace Capone" Coles, a hip-hop promoter alleged to have run a $25 million drug operation out of Southwest Philadelphia, a stretch of turf many consider among the most distressed and dangerous in the city.
"Anastasia's stories are important," says Griffin, a former Philly cop turned university professor. "We get to see who these bad guys are and how they operate. We get a look at their world. These are stories that wouldn't have been written back in the era of the Black Mafia."
Griffin says the exploits of the Black Mafia were underpoliced and underreported 30 years ago for one reason, twisted as it is: prejudice.
"No one believed black people could be that organized," says Griffin. "So despite evidence to the contrary, it went largely ignored. The thinking, both from cops and the media, was that when it came to organized crime, we don't go after anybody but the Italians."
Griffin says many in the media also believed that newspaper and magazine stories about black criminals wouldn't sell to readers. "A lot of people in charge believed they'd have to provide too much context," he says. "You'd have to tell who these guys were, where they came from, get into a lot of detail. With the Italians, everybody knew all the players."
It's not much of a stretch to say the failings of the police and the media three decades back has contributed mightily to the frightened state of the city today.
"The violence the Black Mafia employed devastated whole neighborhoods," says Griffin. "They did a lot of damage, some of which may last forever."
As one drug dealer quoted in Griffin's book says, the Black Mafia didn't just want a little drug action--they wanted to control all the city's heroin traffic.
Griffin recalls seeing the effect of heroin on users back in his days as a cop.
"I saw how it turned whole blocks of people into zombies," Griffin recalls. "As a cop, you worry about people on crack or PCP, but not heroin. You go into a bad situation and find people on heroin, you just look at them. They're not even there."