STUDIO: Paramount Home Video
MSRP: $19.99
RATED: Unrated
RUNNING TIME: 246 minutes
Exclusive interview with son of Stanley "Tookie" Williams
Season 2 sneak peek
Extended interviews

The Pitch

Tales of a bunch of guys who, strangely enough, have been left out of any Black History Month mentions.

The Humans

Ving Rhames (narrator), Stanley "Tookie" Williams, "Freeway" Rick Ross, Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, Troy and Dino Smith, The Chambers Brothers, Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols.

Now that’s gangsta, homies…

The Nutshell

Recalling the rise and fall of eight of the most notorious Black criminal figures in American history, American Gangster tells the stories of gangland figures including Crips leader, Stanley "Tookie" Williams, Queens, NY drug dealer, "Fat Cat" Nichols and sibling jewelry thieves Troy and Dino Smith. People who were right in the midst of the goings-on give their recollections of the men and the mayhem they created; and Ving Rhames narrates the stories of these notable ne’er-do-wells.

"American Gangsters? Bah…did any of these guys snuff a couple of Kennedys, arrange an ‘suicide’ for Marilyn Monroe or start that whole Vietnam thing singlehandedly and then go on to host his own variety show? No, I didn’t think so…"

The Lowdown

The only thing more interesting than the tales that American Gangster tells is the fact that they’re all true stories. Stories of some of the most ruthless and cunning criminals in recent American history. Guys who created empires of drugs, murder, gangbanging, robbery, you name it. As narrated by Ving Rhames, who’s excellently played a malcontent or two in his time, Gangster shows that these criminal masterminds were indeed gangsters – gangsters – and not gangstas. The fact that they’re all Black men is the common thread to be sure, but some of these guys have created legacies that rival Capone or Dillinger and it shows that motivation for criminality can be and is inherent in any race.

"The number of cops who weren’t on my take in the entire city’s police department…"

There are six stories told in this first season of the show: "Stanley "Tookie" Williams, the infamous leader of the LA gang, The Crips; The Chambers Brothers, four siblings who forged a crack empire; "Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Williams, a Queens, NY drug dealer who capitalized on the mid-80s drug epidemic; Troy and Dino Smith, two brothers who pulled off a series of high-scale robberies in San Francisco, including the biggest jewelry heist in the city’s history; "Freeway" Ricky Ross, an LA crack kingpin with ties to the Iran-Contra scandal; and Leroy "Nicky" Barnes, a Harlem heroine magnate and government snitch. These stories are fascinating and very well made, using key interviews of people close to the protagonists, including the men themselves in some cases.

Okay, really Nick, the pop ups are getting a little weird…

Upon seeing some of these guys’ stories, you’ll soon see that Nino Brown, Tony Montana and all of the other Hollywood crime lords had nothing on any of them, and that the truth can rival fiction any given day and twice on Sunday. It’s also interesting to note that each man had a story that in many cases was similar in terms of upbringing and environment, but even though they all end up in the same place, the paths they take to get there were frequently winding routes with some interesting side trips. For instance, Stanley "Tookie" Williams once appeared on The Gong Show even as he was building the Crips from the ground up in the 1970s. "Fat Cat" Nichols frequently hobnobbed with rappers and other celbrities while he was spurring on a wave of violence in Queens in the 1980s; and the Smith Brothers also used to hang out with sports figures and celebrities in San Francisco while pulling off heist jobs. And for a long time, the police had no idea who they were.

The first gathering of the EEIG: Eazy-E Impersonators Guild was a big success…

Using archival footage, photographs and key witness testimonials including law enforcement officials, friends and family members, and even interviews with the men themselves, American Gangster is nearly as good a historical program as A&E’s Biography, which I consider the gold standard in that area. The stories are methodically researched and presented in a tight narrative that never loses its punch and showcase the men’s stories not only in a personal sense, but how they influenced – and were influenced by – American historical occurences. It’s a good and informative watch.

What’s really criminal is this is about what it takes to fill up your gas tank these days…

The Package

The show looks good in widescreen and you can really get a feel for the time periods on display as archival footage from the 1950s through the last few years or so are nicely mixed into the stories. For special features, there’s an 50-minute-long interview with son of Stanley "Tookie" Williams, Travon Williams, where he just sits and reminisces about his father and the stories about him. There’s also a Season 2 sneak peek and extended interviews on most of the subjects that run about 28 minutes.

7.2 out of 10