American Gangster: The Pursuit of the American Dream

Crime has an enormous impact on popular culture, being explored by many different mediums such as books, music, cyberspace, television and, of course, films. Since the beginning of the Hollywood film industry, crime has been a central theme in cinematic storytelling, resulting in iconic movies such as The Godfather (1972), Scarface (1983) or Goodfellas (1990). According to Rafter, one of the keys to the success of crime films lies in their ability to provide an escape from daily life, opportunities to solve mysteries, chances to identify with charismatic heroes, and occasions to ponder moral choices without in fact having to make them (Rafter, 2006: 11). In addition, they tend to reflect a certain criminological theory by offering an explanation about who is a criminal, what is a crime, and what are the causes of criminal behaviour (Lam, 2014: 15).

The aim of this article is to analyse American Gangster (2007), Ridley Scott’s widely-acclaimed biographical crime film based on the life of Harlem drug kingpin Frank Lucas, through the lens of criminology. In particular, we are going to examine how the film relies on Merton’s strain theory to explain criminality in terms of individual failings by depriving its characters from legitimate means to achieve the “American Dream”, a cultural ethos characterised by the pursuit of monetary success under conditions of open, individual competition (Messner and Rosenfeld, 2013: 6). After summarizing briefly the plot of American Gangster, we will introduce the strain theory and show how it informs the film.

American Gangster

The film opens in 1968 with the death of Bumpy Johnson (played by Clarence Williams III), a local gangster who runs the crime scene in Harlem. His right-hand man, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), decides to take over Bumpy’s business and travels to Southeast Asia at the height of Vietnam War, where he intends to acquire pure heroin right from the source. After negotiating a deal with a Chinese producer, Frank uses his cousin, who owns a nightclub in Bangkok and has connections to the military, to smuggle the heroin into the United States by hiding it in the coffins of soldiers killed in action. Since there is no middleman, Lucas is able to sell his product, branded as “Blue Magic”, at a lower price than his competitors, which grants him the monopoly on the drug trade in New York and the surrounding areas. As his fortune grows, Frank moves his family form North Carolina to New Jersey, where he buys a big house for his mother. He also recruits his brothers and cousins to work for him, and marries a Puerto Rican beauty queen.

The other protagonist of the movie is Newark detective Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe). After discovering $1 million in unmarked bills in the trunk of a car and turning the money in, Richie and his partner Javier Rivera (John Ortiz) earn the distrust of the entire police department. As Rivera points out, “a cop who turns in this kind of money says one thing: he’ll turn in cops who take money.” Having become a pariah, Rivera turns to heroin and dies from overdosing on Blue Magic. Captain Lou Toback (Ted Levine) then decides to put together a task force to investigate who is behind this new drug, with Roberts at its head.

Throughout the film, we witness how Lucas deals with potential threats such as Italian mafia boss Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante), whose own drug business is hurting because of Frank’s market dominance, and a group of corrupt police officers led by detective Nick Trupo (Josh Brolin), who attempt to extort money from him. Lucas also has to confront rival drug dealer Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who has been selling low quality heroin under the Blue Magic brand name. At this point we really get to see how drug trade is handled as a business, with Lucas reprimanding Barnes for this “trademark infringement”: “I don’t understand why you got to take something that is perfectly good and mess it up. See, brand names means something. Understand? Blue Magic. That’s a brand name, like Pepsi. That is a brand name. I stand behind it. I guarantee it. […] When you chop my dope down to one, two, three, four five percent and then you call it Blue Magic, that is trademark infringement. You understand what I’m saying?”

Eventually, Roberts’ task force arrests Jimmy Zee (Malcolm Goodwin), Frank’s cousin and driver, for trying to shoot a woman on the street. They agree to drop charges against him if Jimmy wears a wire and informs on Frank. With Jimmy’s assistance, Roberts tracks down one of the planes carrying the heroin, which ultimately leads him to Frank’s drug processing facility. The film climaxes with a large shootout that ends with the arrest of Huey Lucas (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Frank’s brother and second in command. Frank himself is arrested later when he walks out of church. While in custody, he is offered the chance to get a shorter jail sentence if he provides the names of the corrupt cops he knows about. Left with no other choice, Frank cooperates with Roberts’ investigation, resulting in the arrest and conviction of three quarters of the New York’s Drug Enforcement Agency. Frank is sentenced to 70 years in prison, which are reduced to 15 years due to his cooperation. The final scene shows Frank’s release in 1991 and how he walks the streets of Harlem side by side with Roberts.

Origin of strain theory

The origin of strain theory lies in the concept of anomie, coined by French sociologist Emile Durkheim in his book Suicide (1987). Anomie comes from the Greek “a nomos” meaning “without norms” (Siegel, 2007: 151), but for Durkheim it represents a state in society in which norms, understood as the unwritten but universally accepted code of moral ethics and values (Dyer, 2003: 101), are no longer fully effective in regulating behaviour (Brown et al., 2010: 239). This happens in times of rapid social changes like those caused by war or social movements, when society’s normative structure breaks down and, as a result, people are free to pursue their selfish and greedy desires (Tibbets, 2012). In American Gangster, the American soldiers fighting in the Vietnam War provide a great example of anomie. Having been sent away from their families and being exposed to the traumatizing effects of war, they no longer feel part of society. Traditional norms have lost their meaning and do not apply to them any more. In order to cope with this situation, soldiers turn to alcohol and drugs, as is clearly shown in the film when Frank arrives to Bangkok.

Merton’s strain theory

Building upon Durkheim’s theory, Robert Merton believes that all societies have a cultural structure that defines socially approved goals and the acceptable means to achieve them. The balance between these two elements, goals and means, allows people to achieve success in an appropriate way. However, too much emphasis on certain goals can exert pressure on some segments of the society to rely on illegitimate means in an effort to achieve success (Brown et al., 2010: 240).

In American society, Merton argues, there is a strong cultural emphasis on the goal of financial success. The idea that everyone has a fair and equal chance of becoming successful and wealthy if they work hard enough is at the core of the American Dream (Vito and Maahs, 2011: 152). Frank Lucas seems to share this belief: “The most important thing in business is honesty, integrity, hard work, family, never forgetting where we came from. See, you are what you are in this world, that’s either one of two things: Either you’re somebody, or you’re nobody.”

According to Merton, this overemphasis on success has led people to be more concerned with the pursuit of money than with the proper way to achieve this goal, going so far as to violating norms or laws (Ibid.: 152). The problem is compounded by the American class system, since disadvantaged minority groups and the lower class do not have equal access to the educational and occupational opportunities needed to achieve success. As a result, these groups rely on whatever effective means to success they can find, even if these means are illegitimate (Akers, 1999: 120).

Merton (1938) identified five possible modes of adaptation that can occur when anomie takes effect. Each of them can be illustrated with a character from American Gangster. The first one, conformity, is the most common and widely diffused. Conformists accept both the societal goals and the legitimate means for achieving them, regardless whether or not they succeed. This adaptation is best represented by Eva Kendo (Lymari Nadal), Frank’s wife. Having achieved success through legitimate means (marrying into wealth), she fulfils the role society has set for her, housewife, without resorting to illegitimate means.

Merton’s second mode of adaptation, innovation, describes individuals that accept societal goals but achieve them through illegitimate means. This adaptation is illustrated by a large number of characters, including Frank Lucas, Dominic Cattano and Nicky Barnes. They all aspire to the same goals as any other individual pursuing the American Dream (wealth, power and status), but they obtain them through socially unaccepted means (smuggling and selling drugs). Innovators can also be found on the other side of the law. Corrupt police officers like detective Trupo adopt a range of illegitimate means, such as accepting bribes or selling heroin confiscated from drug dealers, as a shortcut to a better life. The reason they tolerate drug business is explained by Roberts: “You know I don’t think they want this to stop. I think it employs too many people. Judges, lawyers, cops, politicians, prison guards, probation officers. They stop bringing dope into this country; about 100,000 people are going to be out of a job.”

As for Merton’s third adaptation, ritualism, it refers to individuals who reject the goals of society but accept the socially accepted means to support themselves. This adaptation is adopted by Frank Lucas after he gets released from prison. Having lost everything and founding himself in a world he no longer recognizes, Lucas abandons the goal of financial success: “You know, one phone call, Richie, I could be back in business. I won’t. I’m just saying I could”. As Merton states, people can move from one adaptation to another if their circumstances change (Rafter and Brown, 2011: 90).

The forth adaptation, retreatism, is characterized by the rejection of both the cultural goals and the socially accepted means. In Merton’s words, retreatists are social dropouts that include “psychotics, psychoneurotics, chronic autists, pariahs, outcasts, vagrants, vagabonds, tramps, chronic drunkards and drug addicts” (Merton, 1938: 677). This adaptation is illustrated by detective Javier Rivera, who becomes a drug addict after being ostracised in the police department. Having renounced to the idea of success, his only goal is to obtain money for heroin, going so far as to kill and rob a drug dealer.

Rebellion, the final mode of adaptation, occurs when someone rejects both the goals and means of society. Unlike the retreatist, however, the rebel attempts to introduce a new social order by replacing the old goals and means with new ones (Ibid.: 678). This adaptation is best represented by the character of Richie Roberts. His rare honesty and integrity makes him a rebel within an organization wracked by corruption. He rejects the goal of wealth and status the other cops struggle for, which is evidenced by the fact the he turned in the money found in the car. His ultimate goal is to bring down Frank’s drug empire and to uncover the widespread corruption in the police, which he achieves despite being hindered in his investigation by his superiors.


American Gangster shows us the downside of the American Dream. Success is measured by money, but not everyone does have an equal opportunity to achieve this goal. This leads to deviance, since people who lack legitimate opportunities are willing to gain wealth through illegitimate means. The film does a great job in illustrating Merton’s deviant adaptations, with innovation being the most common of all. It shows how people like Frank Lucas, who come from a poor background and do not have any education, have no other way to achieve success than turn to crime. As Frank puts it, “either you’re somebody, or you’re nobody.”



Akers, R. (1999). Criminological theories: Introduction and Evaluation. 1st ed. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers.

Brown, S., Esbensen, F. and Geis, G. (2010). Criminology: Explaining Crime and Its Context. 7th ed. New Providence, NJ: LexisNexis Anderson.

Dyer, N. (2003). Durkheim, Mead, and Heroin Addiction. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge, 2(2).

Lam, A. (2014). Making Crime Television: Producing Entertaining Representations of Crime for Television Broadcast. Abindon, Oxon: Routledge.

Messner, S. and Rosenfeld, R. (2013). Crime and the American Dream. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Rafter, N. (2006). Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rafter, N. and Brown, M. (2011). Criminology goes to the movies. 1st ed. New York: New York University.

Siegel, L. (2007). Criminology: The Core. 4th ed. Australia: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.

Tibbetts, S. (2013). Criminological Theory: The Essentials. 2nd ed. Los Angeles: SAGE.

Vito, G. and Maahs, J. (2012). Criminology: Theory, Research and Policy. 1st ed. Sudbury, Mass.: Jones & Bartlett Learning.


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