Breaking away from its reputation as a home for musicvideos and little else, BET makes a savvy push into more challenging territory with this documentary series, which examines the lives and legends surrounding such notorious figures as Stanley “Tookie” Williams and “Freeway Ricky” Ross. For the most part, the show fulfills its PR pledge to “explore without glorifying and investigate without celebrating,” but it’s nevertheless a clever commercial exercise — exploiting gangsta culture by delving into issues afforded minimal consideration within mainstream TV news.
“American Gangster” opens with Williams, the Crips gang founder executed in California last year, despite his nomination for a Nobel prize and pleas that he redeemed himself by writing anti-gang children’s books on Death Row. It’s followed by a probing look at Ross and the crack cocaine epidemic, including charges that the CIA was complicit in the drug’s spread into the black community, as documented by the late reporter Gary Webb in his controversial (and some would say largely discredited) investigative series, “Dark Alliance.”
Narrated by Ving Rhames, the hours make heavy-handed use of a constant and overwrought musical track to heighten the drama, but stripped of that irritating element, producers Nelson George, Frank Sinton and Steve Michaels have delivered fairly straightforward documentaries complete with an impressive array of interviews and notable clips — including the bizarre sight of Williams, the brutal, muscle-bound gang patriarch, appearing on “The Gong Show.”
The Crips, the narration suggests, became a kind of “surrogate family for orphans of the civil rights movement,” though not without costs, among them stomping a teenager to death and the four murders of which the drug-addled Williams was convicted that landed him in prison.
Similarly, the second installment chronicles the flow of money crack provided as well as its human toll, tackling both the less punitive legal treatment of powder cocaine users and popular conceptions about the role of Reagan-era policies in crack’s “Just say yes” rise.
The five-part project represents a step forward by BET under new management and owner Viacom, after a lengthy period in which the cable net appeared to coast along on carriage agreements without investing much money or effort in original programming. It’s also further proof that whatever a channel’s niche, there’s nothing more unifying and American, seemingly, than the enduring fascination with crime.