“American Gangster” is one of the best gangster movies of our time. Sure it can't really compete with “Godfather” or “Scarface,” but that’s for a different generation altogether. And it’s entirely because of Denzel Washington’s performance in playing the controversial character of Frank Lucas.
Frank Lucas was a badass gangster who managed to take over the northeast drug trade in the 60s and 70s. His reign began with Harlem and he proceeded to spread and distribute his power all across the northeast region of the country. Frank Lucas was a genius and a master of his craft -- no one could play him better than the legend Denzel.
The man managed to cut out all of the middlemen, importing his dope directly from the jungle, having it touch as few hands as possible. By flying out to the Golden Triangle of southeast Asia, he managed to build a vast network directly at the source of the trade so that he didn’t need to depend on someone in the states to get it to him. His drug of choice was opium because it had the highest potency among all other drugs, which he then went on to nickname “Blue Magic.”
Devising a brilliant plan to smuggle the drugs back to the US in coffins of dead American soldiers, he brought over massive shipments without anyone even noticing. Through his elaborate ministrations, he became a very wealthy and powerful man…but of course all good things came to an end.
It was either greedy crooked cops or rival drug dealers that were trying to take his number one spot. Nonetheless the movie provided us value lessons for success that we as a young ambitious people can learn from. At the end of the day business is business, just like a spade is a spade.
Always Let Them Underestimate You
People make the mistake of letting foolish pride and egos get in the way of what the true goals and ambitions are. Getting to the top is about being the underdog and rising out of nowhere, throwing everyone off guard. It was extremely rare for someone from Harlem to be such a powerhouse of the drug trade, especially when the business was generally controlled by the mobs -- most of which were white.
Frank Lucas was the underdog in every sense of the word, being a black man who took over the entire New York heroin trade. When they underestimate you, you can bite the hardest as you come for their spot out of nowhere. No one is safe at the top and there is an underdog always waiting for you to fall off.
Stay Off The Radar
As the great Biggie once said, "real gangsters move in silence." It’s about flying under the radar and keeping your mouth shut. When you bring attention to yourself, you run the risk of the baker’s secrets getting out. Frank Lucas understood this and had one of the most memorable lines of the film: “The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.”
He stressed this to his younger brother who was a lot flashier than he was. This is the code that he lives by; when he did things he only surrounded himself with his own people and managed to keep the least bit of attention on them. No gold chains or fancy cars.
Unfortunately the same advice he gave to his younger brother came back to bite him in the ass when he decided to wear a bright white fur jacket to a boxing match in which he sat in the front row. That’s when the Feds spotted him and started wondering what the hell he actually does. This led to his demise.
Cut Out The Middleman
Many of the lessons from this movie can be applied to any entrepreneur and any basic capitalist venture. Frank always had a problem with the American world of commerce and didn't like how the mobs were in control and, forcibly, the middlemen for the dope coming in. He wanted the pride of ownership and he didn't want to depend on others to get what he needed.
He made a bold move -- to take on the mafia was dangerous, but to fly to the jungle and deal with the direct source was even more dangerous. Between risking his life to form his own cartel and his own means of smuggling the dope to this country, this man fit the mold of the ideal entrepreneur, always finding a way to get things done on his own without depending on someone else.
Middlemen can kill your business: essentially they own you because they own your product. They control the prices and are too much of a wild card, which is why you need to establish your own route directly to the source so you don't have to depend on anyone else.
Brand Your Product
Frank Lucas always stressed the importance of being a brand, having a recognized product and creating something that people love and always remember. He referred to his product as the “Pepsi of smack” or “blue magic.” It soon became so widely coveted that he would make $1 million per day on drug sales alone because of how successful "blue magic" had become.
He was selling better dope than everyone else, directly from the source, at competitive prices and was putting it in blue bags rather than the traditional white. This gave his product an image and something that a consumer can identify right away, just like we can identify an Apple product just looking at it. It’s consistency, it’s quality and it’s building the reputation of your brand so that everyone can associate with it. That is good business, ladies and gentlemen.
Share The Wealth
Anyone who runs a business knows that this is one of the most important aspects of it. No one is superman and can do everything themselves, which is why they have a team, essentially their backbone and their reason for success. Frank Lucas hired his family members because they were loyal and willing to work hard. He spread the wealth amongst them and gave them just enough to keep them happy and motivated, but not too much to where they wouldn't need him anymore.
He was also seen as a man of the people, as each year he would hand out turkeys on Thanksgiving. He employed hundreds in his drug refineries and made sure to always give the impression that, despite peddling drugs on a massive scale, he is actually good for the community.
Success Brings Enemies
Many people warned Frank Lucas about the enemies that success brings. His mentors even explained to him that if you want to be unsuccessful, then go have friends, but if you want to be successful, be ready to feel lonely at the top.
The more success you gain, the more enemies you will attract -- the more competition and the more people you will have looking to take you down. What goes up will eventually come down, but Frank was too stubborn to listen to that and didn't walk away when he was on top. Frank Lucas defined his career as never-ending power and wealth.
By the time his supply-chain operations were crumbling due to the impending American pullout from Vietnam, Frank was a powerful and wealthy man. He was winning at the business game he defined. But winning wasn’t enough for him, he wanted to continue growing his “Blue Heroin” business by any means necessary.
Frank made a final visit to his heroin supplier in Vietnam. A rogue General in the Chinese Kuomintang army presided over the poppy farm where Frank purchased his heroin. Like Frank, this General was a wealthy and powerful man. Unlike Frank, this General understood business as a means to an end…and an end is inevitable.
During their last visit together, the General gave Frank Lucas brilliant business advice…"quitting while you are ahead is not the same as quitting." We see it all the time when great athletes walk out on top and we wonder why, but it’s because they know it’s their time rather than to stretch it out beyond that. Know the lifespan of your business and how long you can essentially stay in it.
Preston Waters | Elite.