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Urban Gangsters: A Look at the Top 10 Films on the Drug Game

American culture loves it’s bad guys and urban gangster films that explore the drug game and gang banging have become increasingly popular, just as the Italian Mafia and Colombian cocaine cartel films have before them. Rap and crack were both born 30 years ago and the fusion of ghetto plus prison lifestyles represented in gangsta rap have translated to film, finding a niche audience among crime obsessed hip-hoppers. Here is a list of the top 10 films in the genre.

Scarface (1983)

Brian De Palma’s epic blood soaked remake of the 1932 Paul Muni gangster classic may not have gotten all the critical acclaim in the world but it became an instant cult favorite among males when it was released. With Al Pacino in the starring role s Tony Montana, he both fascinates viewers and repulses them with his rise to the top of Miami’s cocaine-driven underworld only to fall hard into his own deadly trap of addiction and inevitable assassination. Scripted by Oliver Stone, Tony Montana has become one oft he most unforgettable characters in all of American cinema. He is a criminal, but he is not immoral. He acts without apology or even much thought. Tony Montana in Scarface has become the ultimate ideal of the urban gangster.

American Gangster (2009)

Denzel Washington as real life crime boss Frank Lucas rules Harlem’s heroin trade with his Blue Magic brand. Armed with ruthless, streetwise tactics and a strict sense of honor Lucas builds a multi-million dollar empire. Ridley Scott directed this powerful story that was based on Frank Lucas’ interview in New York magazine with Mark Jacobson. It is a very convincing period piece that perfectly captures the 1970s and the crime culture that existed there. While it has its share of grisly killings, it seems more concerned with the issues of integrity in the face of police corruption. Although this film is more make believe than real life it is still a strong and entertaining movie.

New Jack City (1991)

After Al Pacino’s Tony Montana, Wesley Snipes’ Nino Brown is the second most popular fictional urban gangster. Here was this vicious, arrogant, self-serving and despicable villain, who intrigued viewers so much with his charm and charisma that you couldn’t help but like him. The role was the best of Wesley Snipes’ career and tailor made for his talents. Unlike the gangster films that followed, New Jack City offered a glimmer of hope, despite the violent and realistic backdrop, that perfectly mimicked the crack era and what occurred in New York in the mid-8Os. With rap music en vogue the movie hit home with both the urban and suburban markets. Mario Van Peeples’ first feature film is a hip-hop classic that really captured the essence of the Mafia organized crime movies that preceded it. Juxtaposing the essence of the streets into the modern gangster epic. The movie launched the careers of several notable actors including Ice-T, who played an undercover cop at the height of his Cop Killer mania and Chris Rock who played the crackhead, Pookie, in an unforgettable role. The film represents a controversial portrait of the realities of the drug game.

Paid In Full (2002)

Paid in Full is Damon Dash’s and Roc-a-fella films fictional look at the Rich Porter, Alberto “Alpo” Martinez and AZ Faison story. These three young men impacted not only the drug game and hip-hop, but national relief and life in Harlem itself with their actions. The movie follows the lives of the three infamous Harlem teenage drug lords as they rise to power in Uptown and become major players in the cocaine and crack trades. Cam’ron plays the Alpo role and perfectly recaptures the essence of the pretty boy Puerto Rican trendsetter, who charms his way through the drug underworld, murdering those who get in his way. Even his best friend, Rich Porter, who Mekhi Phifer played, when a dispute over drugs arises. Charles Stone directs this inner-city and hood expose on the drug game and lifestyle that still influences hip-hop culture to this day. The story is an intriguing glimpse into the lives of young drug lords and the dynamics between them that led to death, deceit and betrayal.

King of New York (1990)

This film is homage to the classic American genre- the gangster fable- with the depth and subtext of a European art movie. The low budget crime thriller has the feel of a major blockbuster and is an ode to drug culture and the game as we know it. Its impact on hip-hop and street culture in undeniable as Frank White, like Tony Montana and Nino Brown before has become a part of rap’s lyrical lore. In the film Christopher Walken plays Frank White, a crime boss just released from prison who vows to get back all that he lost. No sooner does White step out of prison than the killing begins. The movie is loud, ugly, brutal, violent, lurid and hysterical, but it has a purity and beauty all its own and the character Frank White has been mythologized by many rappers including Biggie Smalls who likens himself in his rhymes to the fictional gangster. Abel Ferrara directs this gangster epic, which evolves into a double crossing, high body count feature which culminates in open warfare with the cops and Frank Whites inevitable demise.

Belly (1998)

This hood classic, directed by Hype Williams and starring DMX and Nas, was slammed by critics and bombed in the box office, but it has found a cult following on video. The essence of this film’s message has resonated with the streets. Hype Williams doesn’t glorify what is going on, instead he shows the drug game for what it really is. The violence, the murders, the betrayals and deceit- it’s all there and more. It is a story of street life, friendships, relationships, drugs and the intricacies of the game. Some see it as a video guide on how to be a hip-hop hustler or drug dealing gangster, while others see it as an inner-city tale rife with all the conflictions prominent in urban life. The story is allegedly based on real life drug lord Al Monday and his crew and like many films the reality based fiction is scarier than real life. Belly is a movie with a message to and from the streets. It’s a tribute to all who have played the game and lost.

Juice (1992)

This movie was one of the most powerful to emerge from early hip-hop culture. Spike Lee’s longtime cinematographer, Ernest R. Dickerson made his directorial debut with this violent story about four Harlem teens whose lives are changed when a store robbery goes wrong. Tupac Shakur as the hotheaded thug Bishop steals the movie with his performance, becoming an urban gangsta icon in the process. For the rapper this role was perfectly suited to his acting ability and made him a star in the process. Really even before his rap career took off. If you are into urban dramas, this movie is the quintessential heavily clichéd crime tale. It has been likened to an urban The Wild Bunch and Tupac’s role as Bishop helped to define the mainstream media’s degeneration of the young black male, turning him into public enemy number one across the nation

Colors (1988)

This star studded affair cast Sean Penn and Robert Duvall as police officers battling street gangs in Los Angeles at the height of the Crips and Bloods gang hysteria. Dennis Hopper directed the controversial film that Ice-T penned the infamous title song for. The story showed the lifestyle of the California gangsters and the conflicts those lifestyles entailed. Hailed by critics as one of the most important films of the 80s, this movie has gone down as an urban gang classic, which brought the inner-city California gang banging culture to the mainstream. The movie also generated interest in West Coast gangsterism, which opened the doors for rap stars like Ice-T, Snoop Dog, Ice Cube and NWA to obtain national and international fame and success with their gritty raps on street life in South Central L.A.

Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2005)

This is 50 Cent’s code to the gangster classics, which he based on his own real life story. The hard hitting film, directed by Jim Sheridan and co-starring Terrence Howard, is based on 50 Cent’s transformation from street corner drug dealer to world famous rapper. Very loosely autobiographical, it shows how 50’s mom was killed in the drug game and how 50 searched for a father figure and found one in New York crime boss Majestic. Whose character was based off real life drug lord Kenneth “Supreme” McGriff, who reigned king in Queens in the 1980s crack era, where the real 50 grew up. And who in real life allegedly had 50’s real mom killed for losing some of his drug loot. With all the twists and turns in the movie re-enacted from 50’s real life, the movie is turned into a revenge fantasy flick, where 50’s character turns the table on drug lord Majestic and kills him, while becoming a superstar rapper at the same time. But the real Supreme is doing life in the feds, not dead. Still it’s a good story.

Menace II Society (1993)

Another Los Angeles based hood flick that has come to be seen as a staple of the urban gangster genre. The film is a very powerful, sad and realistic take on ghetto life. It was the directorial debut from the writer-director team of brothers Allen and Albert Hughes, that chronicles life in Los Angeles’ inner-city. Things start off violent and never really stop, from beginning to end as there is plenty of bloodshed and brutal excess. The movie marked one of the first appearances of Jada Pinkett, as the love interest of lead actor Tyrin Turner, who plays Caine in this vivid and occasionally frightening account, that represents and captures the repressive universe of violent ghetto life. The film has been critically acclaimed and called a cinematic masterpiece by reviewers. It is the classic gangster film with the urban twist. The movie grabs the viewer’s attention from frame one as O-Dog (Larenz Tate) epitomizes the essence of the widely publicized young black male and his “I don’t give a fuck” attitude, so widely expressed in hip-hop today.


  • Tara says:

    How about an honorable mention for South Central! “deuce deuce!”
    Love that movie!

  • Jay says:

    Some people didnt like it, but the Miami Vice movie with Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell was some thorough shit about the real drug game, at the top levels (excluding Illuminati and certain governments, that’s the top/top with the cartel leaders. It’s reported billionaire Fred Smith who owns FedEx has been smuggling tons of cocaine on his company planes for decades). Anyway, Miami Vice dealt with a big dog druglord like Sosa from Scarface with a private army, 18 wheelers, barges and go-fast boats etc. Dudes making over 100M yr in the game. The love story with Crockett and the kingpin’s right-hand chick was corny, but I thought it was a thorough movie otherwise. I grew up on the original Miami Vice and DVR it on Centric, so maybe I’m biased.

    I like Pac and Omar Epps, but Juice wasn’t really about the drug game to me. It was about Tupac wildin out and Omar Epps doing his D.J thing and all that shit colliding at the end. Top 5 rap soundtrack of all time!

  • Jay says:

    Oh yeah, on the indy tip, “State Property” from the Roc-A-fella camp was tight. Beanie Sigel’s character was clearly patterned after Aaron Jones and the Junior Black Mafia out of Philly. Beans came up in Philly, when those JBM dudes had the town on lock. Good indy flick about the game. Not hatin, but Jay-Z has to be the worst actor in history. Dude made Nas’ performance in “Belly” look like Denzel in “Training Day”.

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