American Gangster - The Complete First Season

While feature documentaries may touch on difficult subjects or illuminate prolific characters, made-for-tv documentaries typically stick to the easy road, remaining a little light on substance and a little heavy on popular opinion. What sets BET’s new docu-drama series apart from its contemporaries is the gritty honesty with which the subject matter is investigated. And the subjects, some of the most notorious African-American criminals of all time, are not especially prone to simple profiling.

The six episodes included in the first season of American Gangster cover infamous inner-city criminals from Stanley “Tookie” Williams, co-founder of the Crips (and later a Nobel nominee), to Leroy “Nicky” Barnes, also known as “Mr. Untouchable” for his flagrant attitude towards law enforcement. Ving Rhames lends a subtle stoicism to the series with his gravelly narration and the detail with which these documentarians have approached their material separates the show from typical historical profiling to intensely watchable educational fare. Every episode focuses not only on the life and times of the men themselves, but the socio-economic, political and historical background leading up to their rise to power… and their inevitable falls.

American Gangster manags to walk a thin line between denunciaton of these men for their violent and illegal actions and praise for their strength and intelligence, but in the end the final word comes down hard on these self-proclaimed gangsters. Even when looking at the incredibly volatile life of “Tookie” Williams and his eventual renunciation of gangs and violence after being arrested, his detractors are still allowed a voice. This display of both the positive and negative aspects of these men’s lives serves the series well and repeatedly transforms a good historical account into a great one.

Featuring intense and telling interviews with friends, family members, historians and enemies American Gangster paints each portrait in careful, delicate strokes. These may be powerful men, but behind the public faces many will recognize lie the personal formations of human beings, and American Gangster is here to reveal them.

Zach’s Review: A-
Inner-city resident’s review: A
Country bumpkin’s review: B

To purchase American Gangster – The Complete First Season, visit Amazon

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