What's the Real Story Behind Hollywood's Portrayal of Harlem Drug Kingpin Frank Lucas?
By Clarence Walker, Investigative Reporter and New Criminologist Journalist, Houston Texas
First published on: 11/5/2007
American Gangster, considered one of the hottest, blockbuster movies of the year, opened in theaters worldwide on November 2. It is no doubt currently the most talked about gangster movie in America.
Highly anticipated, American Gangster chronicles the true story of 1970s Harlem drug kingpin Frank "Superfly" Lucas (played by Oscar academy winner Denzel Washington) - who built a multi-million dollar enterprise trafficking drugs in the coffins of Vietnam soldiers - and a police detective, Richie Roberts (played by Russell Crowe) whose bulldog tenacity is to bring down the fearless drug lord.
Now that millions of viewers have watched the true-life movie based on "Superfly" Lucas, and the numerous interviews he has given to National newsmedia to promote the movie, controversy is on the horizon.
Critics have uncovered evidence that Lucas' alleged true-life story, as portrayed on the silver screen, is based on falsehoods and blatant lies.
Matter of fact, Lucas' true-life criminal history as adapted for the movie is filled with so many falsehoods it's a herculean task determining where they began and end.
"Frank Lucas, the dope-dealer, portrayed by Denzel Washington in the upcoming movie is a low-down good for nothing liar," says Mayme Johnson, wife of Bumpy Johnson, a former Harlem gangster who Lucas calls his mentor and confidant.
According to law enforcement authorities, crime historians, former drug barons and gangsters, including a new book written by Ron Chepesiuk and Anthony Gonzalez Superfly: The True, Untold Story Of Frank Lucas, American Gangster www.franklucasamericangangster.com
The movie is based on countless misleading and deceptive stories cooked up by Lucas to claim the fame he really doesn't deserve.
Author Ron Chepesiuk, who has just released the first true account of Lucas life in "The Untold story of Frank Lucas" tells TNC Journalist Clarence Walker that "Hollywood gets away with a lot when it comes to gangster flicks because it uses the disclaimer "based on a true story".
"But the fact is many aspects of Lucas' story are suspect; the movie complicates the distortions and falsehoods by fictionalizing many of Lucas' claims to fame. Then you have a mega star like Denzel Washington playing Lucas and it becomes quite a challenge for a true crime writer to set history right."
A research of Lucas' stories, related by him to various reporters over the years, particularly descriptions of events featured in the New York Magazine in 2000 (American Gangster was based on this article) and the events he recalls about his life as a drug lord and murderer that captivated Hollywood, and now proves untrue, are the following:
(1) He only ratted on DEA agents and police officers. Sometimes he denies testifying against anyone. Contrary to Lucas', story he only gave up police officers. There are numerous newspaper articles indicating he "rolled over" on at least a hundred drug dealers (no mention of any cops charged or convicted).
Chepesiuk responds, "What cops did Lucas turn in?" Contrary to what's in the movie, no DEA agent was ever turned in by Lucas. In fact, it was the DEA, not Richie Roberts, who played the biggest role in bringing down Lucas."
"Roberts," he further explains, "was a minor figure in the Lucas investigation; the idea that Roberts was the the key official in bringing Lucas down is Hollywood's imagination." Chepesiuk should know because he interviewed former DEA agents who nabbed the drug lord.
"Further to say," Chepesiuk added, "Lucas turned in only corrupt cops is an effort by Tinsel Town to soften Lucas's image as a snitch. Deep down, nobody really likes or respect a snitch; he was not a snitch out of any altrustic motive."
"He did it to save his skin, facing 70 years in prison".
(2) Lucas' claim that his cousin was hung and shot to death by KKK for looking at a white woman has not been verified by this author or other sources who researched the event.
An exhaustive research by author Chepesiuk also failed to turn up evidence that the alleged event happened when Lucas was six, in 1936, and living in North Carolina.
(3) Gangster Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson died in Lucas' arms. In the American Gangster movie a scene shows Denzel Washington affectionately holding actor Clarence Williams (portrayed as Bumpy) as he is dying from a heart attack.
Chepesiuk responds, "As stated in my book, there was no record of Lucas being present when Bumpy died in Wells restaurant. Press reports of Bumpy's death in July 1968 do not mention Lucas' name. I talked to some old DEA agents who knew Bumpy well. They could not recall Frank Lucas, let alone him ever being at Bumpy's side when he died or acted as his right hand man."
Chepesiuk posed this question: "Why has Lucas made a big deal of his relationship with Bumpy? It establishes lineage. If Lucas can claim Bumpy died in his arms and get the the public to believe he was Bumpy's right hand man, then he can make a claim he inherited Bumpy's mantel of being the Godfather of Harlem, which is something to boast about."
Bumpy's wife backs up Chepesiuk's investigation.
When Mayme Johnson, the 93-year-old wife of Bumpy Johnson, read the New York Magazine story of Lucas' claim he was Bumpy's right-hand man and that Bumpy died in his arms, the widow became infuriated.
"Now I understand," she said "there's a movie coming out starring Denzel Washington called "American Gangster" which tells the life of Frank Lucas and the movie will perpetrate that lie."
Johnson characterized Lucas' relationship with her husband this way: "Frank Lucas was little more than a flunky to Bumpy; a flunky he never fully trusted. Frank, Bumpy said, was a liar, and it's easier to trust a thief than a liar."
"Now why would Frank tell such a lie about being with Bumpy when he died?"
Mayme answered her own question.
"Because he figured since Junie Byrd, Nat Pettigre, Finkley Hoskins and Sonny Chance - all of whom were there when Bumpy died are also dead; there's no one alive to reveal the fact that he's lying."
To set the record straight and expose the lies about her husband, shown in American Gangster, by Lucas, and other falsehoods, Mrs. Johnson has co-authored a book scheduled for publication with Karen E. Quinones titled Harlem Godfather: The Rap on My Husband, Ellsworth Bumpy Johnson.
Johnson is on record with the media, saying she "thinks it's a shame Lucas was able to fool Hollywood into believing that he's a bigger shot than he really is."
She points out that if Lucas lied about his relationship with Bumpy "there's no telling what else he lied about thats portrayed in the movie."
"Everything in the movie is now suspect."
Informant Role: Why Lucas denied being a 'snitch'?
Lucas' legendary story about only ratting on cops reeks of hypocrisy and is in truth, a blatant lie. Apparently the aging gangster expects people to believe if he only gave up cops this makes him less of a snitch. Doesn't Lucas realize that even if his story were true, and he gave up nothing but cops, a rat is still in fact, a rat?
In effect, Frank Lucas is one of the biggest drug dealing turncoats to play the game in the black underworld of organized crime.
Who was Lucas really giving up, and why?
Federal court records archives, aan interview with Ron Chepesiuk, who penned the newly released book about Lucas' life, and extensive research of New York broadsheets, reveal irrefutable evidence that Lucas turned on a veritable conrnucopia of multi-echelon drug dealers.
U.S. Attorney John Martin Jr. made this glowing statement, "By his cooperation, he placed his life in jeopardy."
"The cooperation of individuals such as Lucas is vital to the government's effort to combat narcotics traffic."
In a recent interview (October 25th 2007) with New York Magazine reporter Mark Jacobson, a 77-year-old wheelchair bound Lucas responds to Jacobson after being asked "Frank, I'm saying you can do all kinds of crimes, but a lot of people feel if you snitch, that's worse. What you think about that?"
Lucas snaps, "I never in my life, not to this day, testified on nobody. Ain't no sonofabitch in the world ever got put in on account of me."
To justify his helping of authorities to nab police officers, he explains "Bad cops, yes. But rat shit - no, no, no."
During the interview with Lucas and former heroin dealer Nicky "Mr. Untouchable" Barnes, Barnes admitted to reporter Jacobson that he himself had informed against other gangsters.
When Jacobson asked lucas, "Do you think there's a time when it's good to cooperate?" Lucas responds, voice rising, "I told you before. I never testified on nobody!"
Jacobson tried another angle. "Some cases were made Frank."
"Look," Lucas yelled, "I have remorse about what I did."
The exchange, with Lucas' denials and then acknowledgement of his cooperation, makes the former gangster into a clear embroiderer of the truth, who apparently thinks a sensible person cannot see through his none too subtle charade of smoke and mirrors.
In a New York Times article dated August 25th 1984, the headline reads: U.S. Jury Convicts Heroin Informant.
The brief Times article mentions the fact that when Lucas was sentenced to a total of 70 years in prison, in 1976, on federal and state drug trafficking charges, he began cooperating with authorities and this led the following year to convictions of more than 100 narcotics dealers.
In reference to Lucas' role as an informant, the Times article further reads that in 1981 Lucas 40 year federal term and 30 year state term were reduced to time served, plus lifetime parole.
Lucas' role as an informant was valuable enough to earn him a nice haven in the Federal Witness Protection Program.
His Puerto Rican wife Julie, daughter Francine and a son were also placed in the witness protection program in 1977 after Lucas helped the law to convict other drug dealers.
While conducting research about Lucas' crime career, the author of this story watched American Gangster from start to finish to see if the movie script rehashed the same details now in dispute - given by Lucas to the New York Magazine reporter.
In the movie, one memorable scene has actor Denzel Washington singlehandely negotiating a large heroin deal, worth millions, with a major asian drug dealer who questions Washington about who he worked for in the U.S. Washington responds, "I work for nobody but myself."
News media stories, including the New York magazine profile of Lucas, credited the former gangster with eliminating the middleman (the Italian Mafia) from the heroin distribution in Harlem.
Steven Zaillian, the chief scriptwriter, told the New York Times: "It wasn't the idea of doing a dope story so much as: What happens when a black businessman takes over an industry? Frank became bigger than the Mafia and took over their business in a way that made it difficult for him to stay in business."
Somehow, Zaillian ommits major drug players like Nicky Barnes, Frank Matthews, Rob Stepheny, Leon Aiken, Leroy Butler and the superior Harlem Godfather Bumpy Johnson. Bumpy is the man who gave Lucas the dope game; the gangster who Lucas idolized to such an extent that he has lied for years in his attempts to convince people Bumpy died in his arms.
Furthermore, apparently Zaillian either hadn't heard about, or chose to ignore, the history regarding the Mob's control of the heroin trade throughout Harlem and other parts of New York, beginning in the 1920s.
If truth be told, Lucas alone could not have dominated the heroin trade in New York. Besides, the Mob and other key players were very deep in the game.
Evidence of blacks' involvement within organized crime shows that Bumpy Johnson was the first of few original black gangsters. During the 1940s to 1960s which covered some of Lucas' era in the drug trade, Bumpy was the middleman between the black underworld and the Italian mob.
The mob respected and trusted Bumpy. If a player wanted to do business in Harlem, sell drugs, run rackets, bootleg liquor, front stolen goods, whatever illicit hustle one wanted to operate, you paid Bumpy or you died.
Everyone paid except Mom and Pop stores. Therefore, "Superfly" Lucas was no exception.
The U.S. Federal Bureau of Narcotics issued a report in the 1950s indicating that La Cosa Nostra had been smuggling heroin into the U.S. for several years through a network called the French Connection.
And who really dominated the heroin trade in the U.S.?
A 1986 federal organized crime report stated, "During the French Connection era from the 1950s-1970s the La Cosa Nostra controlled approximately 95 percent of heroin entering the U.S."
Assuming the government is correct, how could Lucas dominate the majority of heroin in the Big Apple?
Also, Lucas has often repeated a self-serving mistruth that he broke the Mafia's grip on the importation of heroin into Harlem.
The only drug player credited for attempting to make this happen was Frank Matthews. In 1972 Matthews held the biggest drug dealing summit, in Atlanta, Georgia, to discuss innovative ways to break mob control on heroin so that blacks could cut the mob services from the middle to earn more profit.
Who Mastered the Asian Heroin Connection?
Here is a million dollar question: Which American player among players in the drug trade created the Asian heroin connection into the U.S.?
In Chepesiuk's book, Frank Lucas' claim that he alone discovered the Asian connection (a from the movie) Chepesiuk's investigation, utilising credible documented sources, identifies drug lord Leslie Ike Atkinson, nicknamed "Sergeant Smack" by the DEA as the first known dealer from America to establish the Asian-U.S. heroin connection.
Lucas' story, featured in the New York magazine in 2000 attests to the fact that Atkinson was the guy who turned him on to the Asian drug trade.
He told reporter Mark Jacobson: "Ike knew everyone over there, every black guy in the army, from the cooks on up."
After Lucas partnered up with Ike to transport heroin into the U.S., Jacobson's story characterized Lucas' drug ring as "this 'army inside an army' that served the Country Boys international distribution of heroin shipments on U.S. military planes."
Drugs and Dead Men
Another claim by Lucas, that his associates used the false bottoms of coffins containing the bodies of U.S. soldiers to transport heroin into the U.S., has been contradicted not only by Ike Atkinson but also the Federal government, who nailed Lucas and his drug workers.
New York newpapers recounted at the time when the feds busted Lucas' drug ring in 1975, that federal prosecutors said the operation had used an Asian connection to move the heroin from the Golden Triangle of Burma, Laos and Thailand to Bangkok, and then smuggled the drugs to military bases in North Carolina where the heroin was distributed to markets throughout the U.S.
Lucas' lurid stories of hauling drugs on the plane of then U.S. secretary Henry Kissinger, and concealing drugs among the dead might be true but there are no news articles or government investigation reports that any of his shipments of heroin were found in the coffin of deceased U.S. soldiers.
DEA investigators had heard the rumor about the Atkinson-Lucas coffin connection to transport heroin into the U.S., but no officials confirmed the rumor, even after DEA investigators once searched the coffins on a plane containing dead soldiers bound for the U.S.
During this highly sensitive search no drugs were found.
Today, Ike Atkinson denies that drugs were ever shipped in coffins, and where this story came from, we may never know.
Why Do Gangsters, Outlaws, and Drug Lords Fascinate Us?
Former heroin dealer and self-proclaimed murderer, Frank Lucas, the prime character in the movie American Gangster might someday join a cast of glorified outlaws hailed as anti-heroes, who Americans, for decades, have embraced in their hearts.
The film has already wowed many observers and critics, stirring up the atomsphere of an Oscar to crown the best talent on the screen and behind the scene.
Unlike the Western-style outlaws who focus on the "good guy" whose mission it is to destroy the roots of evil, a gangster movie spotlights the "bad guy", the anti-hero whose passion yearns for power and position.
Against the backdrop of the 1960s civil rights era, American Gangster takes its place among the pantheon of classic gangster movies - the black Scarface or the Harlem Godfather - the kind of exciting movie destined to become a part of American culture.
"Gangsterism is capitalism run rampart," says Jon McCarty, author of the gangster movie history Bullets over Hollywood (published by Da Capo Press).
"It's that old entrepreneurial spirit."
In American Gangster, director Ridley Scott points out that gangsters "are the guys who dare to do the things we'd love to do, but don't. There's this vicarious fascination that gangsters lead an exciting and threatening existence."
"Criminal lives are larger than normal lives because they are acting out life on this grand scale, as celebrities do," says director Marc Levin, who made the Nicky Barnes documentary Mr. Touchable
Levin adds a cultural philosophy: "Every group, it seems, has criminals who enjoy a flashy lifestyle, while others present a sober, businesslike face. For every fashionably tailored Frank Lucas, there's a flamboyant Superfly. For every limelight-loving John Gotti, there's a suburban Tony Soprano."
Irrespective of the ongoing controversy threatening to reveal a trail of falsehoods about the criminal exploits of Frank Lucas, we must not forget America's love affair with gangster movies, which seems to always seduce our desires with an offer we can't refuse.
It doesn't really matter if Hollywood blends fiction with fact, as long as the drama captivates and entertains.
American Gangster works because we admire the wonderful role Washinton plays as drug lord Lucas, a family man with millions made from the drug trade, and we respect and admire cop Richie Roberts, played superbly by Russell Crowe - an honest crime fighter who finally brings the gangster down.
Its unlikely that the outlaw career of "Superfly" Lucas will earn the superior status of Al Capone, Jesse James, Bonnie & Clyde, and John "The Teflon Don" Gotti, but one thing is for sure; if Hollywood has the ability to make people into real-life heroes then Frank Lucas is indeed, an American Gangster legend.
Sources (1) New York Magazine (2) New York Times (3) Federal District Court Records(4)Book:The Untold story of Superfly By Ron Chepesiuk and Anthony Gonzalez (5) African American Organized Crime Report.
Gangster movie history: Google the following information, Top 20 best gangster movies of all times. site: http:listverse.com/entertainment
Any comments: Give us your thoughts. Contact Journalist Clarence Walker at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org
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