American Gangster mirrors themes from Asian consultation on drug use and HIV

Photo by bobbyramakantAs delegates at the First Asian Consultation on the Prevention of HIV related to Drug Use discussed harm reduction in January, Hollywood blockbuster 'American Gangster' was released across the region.

Ironically, the film glamorized crime, violence, sex, corruption, the ‘war on drugs’ and justified the criminalization of injection drug use just as representatives at the Consultation were discussing decriminalization as a means to improve HIV responses.

So which is more likely to influence the imaginations of young people – Hollywood entertainment or an academic session in a conference hall?

The Ridley Scott film features Denzel Washington as Frank Lucas, a drug mafia kingpin, and it opens with a heart-rending shot of Frank pouring petrol on a man tied to a chair before setting him alight. As the man screams in pain, Frank shoots him.

How effective are messages of harm reduction and decriminalization when audiences are being fed these high-adrenaline stories of crime, sex and violence related to injection drug use?

The film attempts to show that as well as being a ruthless and cruel mafia boss, Frank is also a family man who goes to church with his mother every Sunday, holds the hands of his family members during grace and is a humanitarian who distributes food and other gifts to poor communities.

One of the most powerful sequences in the film shows Frank sitting at a dinning table with his mother, wife and extended family, surrounded by delicious food and a palatial house. He asks everyone to hold hands and thank God for his wealth, health, food and a life of love and happiness.

During the sequence, images of people injecting drugs in a small grimy toilet, a child crying beside its mother’s dead body and other heart-wrenching shots of the darker side of drug use flash across the screen.

In contrast with Frank, the film features another strong character–detective Richie Robert (Russell Crowe), who is a good cop but neither a good father nor a good husband.

In another strong sequence, Richie is shown in court during a custody dispute over the right to see his child. His estranged wife claims that being an honest cop doesn’t make him an honest man, since he has had affairs and lied to his child. The film shows the good and bad aspects of both characters and reinforces the message that no one is perfect.

The movie also explores the dark of the police by depicting a corrupt cop who is working hand-in-glove with the drug mafia and takes us back to the 1970s when the Viet Nam War was about to end.

Frank brought heroin directly from Viet Nam and Thailand before smuggling it to the US in the coffins of dead soldiers. Several sections of the film show Thailand and Viet Nam in a bad light, with shots of naked women and injection drugs.

Asia is the only region in the world where the number of new HIV infections among injection drug users is increasing. Asia is also the only region in the world where injection drug use is a leading factor behind HIV transmission.

So many people are talking about the decriminalization of injection drug use as a way to improve HIV responses but how are we going to decriminalize something that is illegal in most countries around the world, not only in Asia?

Does the Goa Declaration which came out on the last day of the First Asian Consultation on Prevention of HIV related to Drug Use, address this concern?

Note: American Gangster is based on a true story.

Jittima Jantanamalaka-CNS