American Gangster

TV review by
Lucy Maher, Common Sense Media
American Gangster TV Poster Image
Smart series takes an in-depth look at crime.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

Although criminal behavior is discussed in detail, the overall message is that crime never pays. Not only will you get caught, but you'll hurt many more people than yourself.


Gun use is rampant. Given that many of the episodes deal with drug use and gang warfare, there's quite a bit of threatened violence.


Discussion of trading sex for drugs in at least one episode.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Drugs play a prominent role in each episode.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this compelling documentary series examines the lives of contemporary African-American criminals like Crips gang co-founder Stanley "Tookie" Williams and crack dealer "Freeway Ricky" Ross. Though the subject matter is mature and often explicit (in one episode, footage of prostitutes is shown as the narrator explains that women traded sex for drugs on the street corners of Los Angeles), the people being profiled aren't glorified. The series' goal is to understand these people and the impact they had on their communities.

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What's the story?

The documentary series AMERICAN GANGSTER takes an in-depth look at the lives of contemporary African-American criminals and examines how their actions both reflected and corrupted the values of their communities. Viewers are introduced to infamous lawbreakers like Stanley "Tookie" Williams (co-founder of the Crips gang), crack dealer "Freeway Ricky" Ross, and former drug dealers Leroy Nicky Barnes, Lorenzo "Fat Cat" Nichols, and the Chambers Brothers. Each episode is narrated by actor Ving Rhames and features interviews with both the subjects and the people affected by their crimes. Interviews with prosecutors and defense attorneys involved in each case are also included, as is footage of historians putting each subject's crime into context.

Is it any good?

American Gangster is a departure for BET, which many have come to associate with music videos and shallow reality shows. This series does a good job of intelligently looking back at the complex lives of the featured criminals and showing how their actions affected not only their lives, but those of their families, friends, and neighbors. While the subject matter is grim and footage can sometimes be harsh, it's compelling viewing for audiences eager to learn about the past.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about crime. How does someone become a criminal? Is crime ever justified? How are race and crime tied together in the United States? What role do the media play in that relationship? What is racial profiling? Are the police tougher on some races than others? How can communities particularly plagued by crime fight back?

TV details

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