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Friday July 20th 2018

American Gangster | 2007

American Gangster filming location: Lenox Avenue at 122 Street, Harlem, New York
American Gangster filming location: 'Lucille's' cafe – Frank's unofficial HQ: Lenox Avenue at 122 Street, Harlem, New York

Somewhat glamourised epic on the rise, fall and redemption of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), entrepreneur drug dealer who flooded Harlem with reasonably-priced heroin in the late Sixties, until he was brought to justice by dogged Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe).

It’s claimed that the film used 180 different locations, in all the five boroughs of New York City, with a few days' filming in upstate New York and suburban Long Island.

It’s also made on practical locations, though some interiors (including Lucas' heroin-cutting den and the housing projects in which the final drug busts take place) were filmed on Governors Island, a few miles across New York Harbor from the Statue of Liberty. A former army barracks and training base, the high-rise buildings that once housed military personnel have been vacant for years and housed several interior sets.  

American Gangster filming location: Broadway, New York
American Gangster filming location: the soulless modern store where Bumpy is taken ill: Broadway, New York

The film opens in ‘Harlem, 1968’ as Bumpy Johnson (Clarence Williams III) bemoans the lack of the personal touch in business as he balefully surveys the goods on display in an electronics store. His time is over, he’s taken ill and dies.

The store is in Harlem, but it’s not an electronics store, nor even the sneakers store it’s become by the end of the film. It’s the Tuck-it-Away Self-Storage facility, 3330 Broadway‪, on the southwest corner of 135th Street.

Richie Roberts is supposedly based out of New Jersey – hence much of the animosity with the New York cops – but, more often than not, New York stands in – which made much of the film confusing for local New Yorkers.

Following a tip-off, Richie and his partner Javier (John Ortiz) head off to pick out a bookie. The subtitle reads ‘New Jersey’, but that’s the Williamsburg Bridge looming over the background and they’re actually driving along South 3rd Street at Kent Street near the East River waterfront in Brooklyn.

They eject their informant from the car on 6th Street and it’s in the empty lot at Broadway and Bedford Avenue they discover $987,000 in drug money in the trunk of a car. Despite Javier’s protests, straight-arrow Richie turns the haul in and the pair find themselves pariahs within the then-notoriously corrupt force.

In the wake of confusion following Bumpy’s death, Frank is meeting with Mafia man Rossi (Jon Polito) who bemoans the current anarchic state of business – the police adulterate the drugs they seize and sell them back to the dealers.

The bar is art deco Thirties gem the Lenox Lounge, which stood at 288 Lenox Avenue, between 124th and 125th Streets in Harlem.

Opened in 1939, the bar witnessed performances by many greats of jazz, including Billie Holiday, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, and attracted the likes of Malcolm X and Harlem Renaissance writers such as James Baldwin and Langston Hughes as patrons.

Its fortunes waned over the years but, despite a major renovation in the 1990s, the lounge closed at the end of 2012 and the building was gutted. Conflicting reports speculated that a new venue would open on the site or that the Lenox itself would reopen at 333 Lenox Avenue. Unbelievably, the Lenox Lounge was demolished in 2017.

If you look across the road as Frank calls his ‘cousin’ in Bangkok from a booth outside the Lenox, you can see that one company is showing amazing foresight by advertising its website in the late 60s.

The old Lenox was also seen in Spike Lee’s epic biopic Malcolm X, with Denzel Washington again, and in John Singleton’s 2000 update of Shaft, with Samuel L Jackson.

American Gangster filming location: Lenox Avenue at 122 Street, Harlem, New York
American Gangster filming location: 'Lucille's' cafe – Frank's unofficial HQ: Lenox Avenue at 122 Street, Harlem, New York

‘Lucille’s’, the café which becomes the unofficial headquarters for Frank and his guys, and where he’s challenged the top position by Tango (Idris Elba), was an invention, though. It was added for the movie to the exterior of the imposing brownstone on the corner of Lenox Avenue and 122nd Street. Next door became the exterior of Frank’s drug operation, while it’s a few doors along 122nd Street in the other direction past Lenox Avenue, that Frank eventually removes Tango from the scene for good.

American Gangster filming location: 122 Street, Harlem, New York
American Gangster filming location: Tango gets taken out: 122 Street, Harlem, New York

Frank playing on the beach with his dog and the flashback to a meeting with Bumpy at the hotdog stall is filmed in front of Astroland on the Coney Island Boardwalk. In the background you can see the famous Parachute Jump, frequently glimpsed in the Coney Island-set Requiem For A Dream.

With the cops peddling low-grade product, Frank plans to cut out the middleman and deal directly with the heroin producers in the Far East and their pure product.

Ingeniously, the gangster moved shipments on military planes to Eastern Seaboard bases in a scheme which saw up to eight kilos of pure grade heroin concealed in the false bottoms of coffins of dead servicemen. Ridley Scott re-created Lucas' time in Southeast Asia in Northern Thailand.

To represent the opium-processing centre, a traditional Thai village and rice barn were constructed in the middle of a peanut field about two hours north of the city of Chiang Mai. The market scenes were filmed in the city of Chiang Mai itself.

American Gangster filming location: Marlboro Houses, West 11th Street, Gravesend, Brooklyn
American Gangster filming location: Javier gets into trouble in the Projects: Marlboro Houses, West 11th Street, Gravesend, Brooklyn

Back in New York, Richie gets a frantic call from his partner Javier who’s trapped in an apartments block by an angry mob after a drug-addled cop has shot his dealer. The apartment block is the Marlboro Projects on West 11th Street at Avenue V in the Gravesend section of south Brooklyn, 28 buildings that offering low-cost housing to 1,700 families and also home to numerous drug dealers, petty thieves and gangs.

When Richie refuses to cover up for him, Javier leaps from the back of the moving ambulance in which they’re escaping on Third Avenue at Brook Avenue, opposite the Old Bronx Courthouse in the Bronx.

Once Frank’s pure ‘Blue Magic’ product floods the city, there are inevitable ODs, including that of Javier himself. The morgue where Richie dolefully surveys the body of his partner was filmed in National Guard Armories, 430 Western Avenue, Morristown, New Jersey.

With no-one now willing to work alongside him, Richie is visited by his superior Toback (Ted Levine) to offer him the chance to set up a Special Narcotics Bureau team of hand-picked officers – rather like The Untouchables.

American Gangster filming location: St Martin's Church, Lenox Avenue, Harlem, New York
American Gangster filming location: interior of the Narcotics Bureau HQ: St Martin's Church, Lenox Avenue, Harlem, New York

Their new HQ, an abandoned old church, is St Martin’s, 230 Lenox Avenue at 122nd Street, which in reality is directly across from Frank’s ‘Lucille’s’ HQ. It’s claimed that this 19th century church is one of the best example of the Romanesque Revival architectural style in Manhattan. Though severely damaged in two fires, it’s been lovingly restored with the stylish stained- and leaded-glass windows and doors you can see in the film.

With business booming, Frank calls his brother Huey (Chiwetel Ejiofor) at the family farm in ‘North Carolina’ and invites the family to visit.

They arrive to discover he’s bought a swanky new home for his mother. The white-pillared mansion is Briarcliff Manor, 508 Scarborough Road, New York.

The Greek Revival home was built in 1820 and completely remodelled in the 1920s, and is valued at around $4,750,000. The family’s journey wasn’t as long as it seems. The Lucas farm was also filmed on the Briarcliff estate.

Richie’s team dumps everything they know so far and starts again, working up from the streets, with a night-time stake-out under the ‘el’ at Broadway and Myrtle Avenue. There’s activity at an unmarked doorway at 952 Broadway and the team is off following a bagman who emerges from the door.

He leads them to the office of the ‘Brushless Car Wash’ which is immediately put under surveillance.

The carwash, where undercover Richie hands over a bagful of cash for a consignment of Blue Magic, has since been demolished. It stood at 125th Street at 12th Avenue beneath the huge arches of the Riverside Drive Viaduct in Manhattanville. Incidentally, it’s opposite the famous Cotton Club.

Following the money, the team find themselves crossing from ‘New Jersey’ into Manhattan, to 176th Street Station, where the bagman takes it into a café, which is now CFSC check cashing, on the corner of 1792 Jerome Avenue at East 176th Street in Morris Heights / West Bronx.

The NYC cops, under Detective Trupo (Josh Brolin) come in for their shakedown and it’s around the corner on Townsend Avenue that Richie Roberts confronts them to get his money back – and gets a warning not to come in to NYC again, without permission.

American Gangster film location: Old Westbury Gardens, Long Island
American Gangster location: Italian mobster Cattano's estate: Old Westbury Gardens, Long Island | Photograph: iStockphoto © Jim Lopes

With the drug distribution status quo threatened, Frank visits the huge estate of Italian mobster Dominic Cattano (Armand Assante) for talks, which opens up national distribution to him moves him further up the food chain.

The estate is Old Westbury Gardens, Long Island, most famously seen in Alfred Hitchcock's North By Northwest, as well as 1971 weepie Love Story, Cruel Intentions and Wolf. The Gardens themselves are 160 acres, surrounding a mansion built in 1906 for steel-business magnate John Phipps.

But Frank’s fall is about to begin after he ignores his own advice and, to please his girlfriend Eva (Lymari Nadal), he turns up in a preposterously ostentatious chinchilla coat – and hat – to take his expensive seat at the Muhammad Ali-Joe Frasier fight in Madison Square Garden.

In fact, the big fight scene was filmed in the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, 1255 Hempstead Turnpike, Uniondale on Long Island, where the arena was filled with extras in period costumes, along with many celebrity lookalikes – and several hundred dummies packing out the 16,000 seat venue. For the first time, he appears on Richie’s radar. The venue has been substantially redeveloped since filming.

American Gangster filming location: Mount Olivet Baptist Church, Malcolm X Boulevard, Harlem, New York
American Gangster filming location: Frank gets married and, later, arrested: Mount Olivet Baptist Church, Malcolm X Boulevard, Harlem, New York

Frank marries Eva at Mount Olivet Baptist Church, 201 Malcolm X Boulevard (Lenox Avenue and West 120th Street) in Harlem. Built in 1907 as a synagogue called Temple Israel of Harlem, the building has been occupied by Mount Olivet Baptist Church since the mid 1920s.

American Gangster filming location: Sutton Place South, East Side, New York
American Gangster filming location: Frank and Eva move into a new, upscale apartment: Sutton Place South, East Side, New York

The couple move into an upscale apartment at 50 Sutton Place South between East 54th and East 55th Streets, on the swanky section of New York's East Side beneath the Queensboro Bridge. You may remember the next-door block, 36 Sutton Place South, as home to Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable in 1953’s How To Marry A Millionaire.

American Gangster filming location: Xing Wang Restaurant, Broadway, Brooklyn
American Gangster filming location: the drive-by shooting at the Chinese restaurant: Xing Wang Restaurant, Broadway, Brooklyn

Apart from the cops, Frank is also having problems with his flamboyant business partner Nicky Barnes (Cuba Gooding Jr) and making plenty of enemies, which culminates in an attempt on his life. The Christmas drive-by shooting is outside what was China City Restaurant, now Xing Wang Restaurant, 914 Broadway at Stockton Street, just a few doors northwest of the stakeout site in Brooklyn.

Incidentally, this is only a couple of doors away from the bar busted by 'Popeye' Doyle (Gene Hackman) in The French Connection.

When Frank’s cousin is compromised and obliged to wear a wire, Frank’s career is over. The team supposedly raids the ‘Steven Crane Projects’ of ‘Newark, NJ’, but you can clearly see the Stillwell Avenue ‘el’ alongside which they assemble. It’s back to the Marlboro Projects (where Richie’s partner had earlier got into trouble), which they enter the estate from Avenue V, just east of Stillwell, where the bloody shoot-out culminates with the arrest of Frank’s brother Huey.

Frank himself is arrested as he emerges from a service at Mount Olivet Baptist Church, 201 Malcolm X Boulevard, where he was married earlier.

His trial is held in Brooklyn Supreme Court Civil Term Building, 360 Adams Street, Brooklyn, which you might remember as where Carrie eventually married Mr Big in Sex And The City.

The film ends where it began with the newly-released Frank learning from Richie what a ‘latte’ is, discovering that the ‘electronics’ store is selling $100 sneakers and ‘8th Avenue’ is now ‘Frederick Douglass Boulevard’.

Once again, it’s by the rails at the junction of Broadway and 135th Street.