Tuesday, June 8, 2010

American Gangster and the devil on 116th Street

In the movie The Usual Suspects, Roger "Verbal" Kint (Kevin Spacey) answers Dave Kujon's (Chaz Palminteri) question: "Who is Keyser Soze? He is supposed to be Turkish. Some say his father was German. Nobody believed he was real. Nobody ever saw him or knew anybody that ever worked directly for him, but to hear Kobayashi tell it, anybody could have worked for Soze. You never knew. That was his power. "The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist."

The Usual Suspects is a great movie, but it's a work of fiction.  American Gangster, however, is based on a true story, and not only speaks to the discussion of the devil's approach, but also reflects wonderful aspects of the salvation relationship.

The Usual Suspects, as a work of fiction, tells a twisted tale of a group of career criminals who don't know the identity of the man for whom they are working. He is unseen, unknown, yet exerts enormous pressure on them to do his bidding. Spacey's character, Verbal Kint, likens him to the devil.

If there is a devil, this is a very apt description of what he might be like. If the world is becoming convinced he does not exist, he can't be blamed for events that happen as a result of the pressure he exerts on people who don't know he's behind the scenes. If he did show up one day on CNN with horns and a pitch fork and everyone saw him, the logical conclusion would be that there must then be a God to counter his destructive negativity, and he'd lose his power for, indeed, as Verbal tells us, his power comes from his freedom to act under the cloak of nonexistence.

So, that sets the context for this post, which is not about The Usual Suspects, which is a work of fiction. American Gangster is based on a very true story and goes quite a bit further to show us a number of remarkable truths.

Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) is looking for a phantom, a drug dealing kingpin who is allegedly pulling down over $1 million per day selling drugs on just one street in New York City in the 1970s. This kingpin appears to be raking in this revenue through the street-level, front-line work of many hired thugs and runners, but the kingpin himself manages to elude Roberts and his team of detectives for five years. Just when it appears they're never going to catch a break, he finally appears, and the cops now have their suspect, Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington).

Had he remained in the shadows, there's no telling if he'd ever have been caught. As long as he could remain unidentified, unrecognized, unknown, he could enjoy exerting pressure on those who work for him from behind the scenes. But, one fine day, he revealed himself, and before too long his jig would be up.

If there is a devil, he understands this and, chances are, won't be jumping out from behind a door yelling "boo" anytime soon. The world will continue to gain confidence that he does not exist, and that will suit his purposes just fine - it's when we don't know he exists that he escapes accountability, and those who dismiss the possibility of his existence may very well be working for him just the same.

[update] The comments below extend this conversation to a better place - beyond how this movie reflects the devil, it also reflects the salvation relationship remarkably well.


  1. Hmmm like that saying, the greatst trick the devil can play on you, is make you belive that he doesn't exist. And that is SO true.

    BTW the character of Ritchie Roberts, How he treated and "took care" of Frank Lucas after he was caught, put on trial and put in jail, and after turning over a new leaf (somewhat) and helped Ritchie get all the other bad guys involed in the criminal underworld, Ritchie helped him though reducing his sentence and getting him readjusted back into soceity after his sentence. In some way alot like how Jesus takes care of us after we get ourselves out of the muck of sin and do good instead. I know, sounds like a bit of a stretch, but if you look at the movie, thats one thing that did stick out for me.

  2. Hey, M.Wanderer, I'm chuckling out loud because that was going to be my next post! Maybe no need to now!

    The relationship between Roberts and Lucas is incredible because a) it's a true story and b) it incredibly illustrates some very subtle nuances of the redemption story.

    No stretch at all, my friend. Hey, forget the post, I'll just mention one additional point right here - Lucas gave Roberts "testimony" that helped him lay charges against even bigger criminals; this cooperation helped Roberts, and helped Lucas, who switched from prosecuting to taking Lucas as his first client when he became a lawyer - he became Lucas' Advocate. We also provide a "testimony" which will help Jesus nail an even bigger criminal, Lucifer himself.

    We "do time" as a result of sin (the first death for, as we read in Hebrews 11, "these all died, having NOT received the promise...") but ultimately once we "get out" (resurrection) we will be taken care of, put up in our advocate's place ("in my Father's house are many mansions...I go to prepare one for you.)

    It really is a wonderful illustration of some of the mechanics of the salvation relationship.


What do you think?!