approximately 5 minutes and 42 secondsRuby Dee plays Mama Lucas, the loving and hardworking mother of the "American Gangster", Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington in an obtusely stentorian turn as the iconic druglord).
roughly 4% (3.6%) of film's total running time
roughly 4% (3.6%) of film's total running time
In this cynical riff on the "American Dream," director Ridley Scott uses Dee's Mama Lucas for one specific purpose: to show that Frank Lucas loved his mama. Dee's Mama Lucas is a simple woman, the hard-working mother of many sons. Her presence in the film works to underscore Frank Lucas's humble roots in Jim Crow North Carolina. Dee's Mama Lucas becomes the emotional key for the film's mapping of Lucas's meteoric rise to, briefly, an apex of American organized crime: Frank Lucas may have robbed, cheated, murdered and indirectly caused the ruination of untold thousands of lives but, through it all, he loved his mama, who almost certainly made a great apple pie.
As Frank's guiding star, Dee's Mama Lucas has two main beats in the film. First, Mama Lucas is the inspiration for Frank's striving ambition. He puts her in an enormous house, completely furnished. The furnishings include a bedroom set, the reproduction of the set removed from the Lucas home when Frank was but a child. In this scene, Dee offers the first of her only two speeches. She's breathless and stunned by the extent of Frank's thoughtfulness: "But you were only five when they took it away." In this moment, anchored by Dee, the film's vision of Frank Lucas finally becomes clear: in his striving, Frank Lucas seeks to right some deep historic wrongs, wrongs done to himself, his family and his people. Just as quickly, director Scott secures Dee's Mama Lucas symbolic status within the film, as the embodiment of both everything good Frank does and of the depth of his vengeful pride.
The second beat for Dee's Mama Lucas comes when the gorgeous house that Frank's built begins to tumble down. Mama Lucas and Frank's wife Eva (the curiously cast Lymari Nadal in a consistently effective performance of a gruesomely underscripted role) are humiliated when the family's opulent home is raided by Detective Trupo (a deliciously slimebag turn by Josh Brolin) and his goons. Here, the symbolism of Dee's character shifts in valence. No longer does she provide a reminder of everything her son is striving for; instead, Dee's Mama Lucas helps to underscore how far Frank Lucas has gone off track.
When Dee calls Frank out on how he has misused his privilege as head of the family, her speech -- and its memorably culminating gesture -- emerges as one of the greater arias of 2007. What begins as a fluttery, mildly apologetic "talking to" transforms into an elemental smackdown. In its brevity, Dee's scene is devastating, an expert distillation of parental devotion, disappointment and despair.
Dee's smackdown of Washington contributes one of the film's only emotionally honest moments. (Indeed, fold Dee's work in with the film's other best supporting actress work - that of Carla Gugino as Crowe's estranged wife - and you have the beginnings of an actually interesting film.) But on its own, Dee's work is both wispy and sturdy, offering what is at once an evanescent glimpse of the film's heart and creating the film's most enduring emotional impression. Plus, at barely five minutes and clearly less than 5% of the film's running time, Dee's work seems nearly negligible... Which is why StinkyLulu's choosing to view this nomination as Frank Lucas himself might - as a small token to right the casual cruelties of past wrongs. I've written about Dee's extraordinary work in an egregiously overlooked 1961 performance before and, were Dee's late-career acknowledgment for that role alone, it might be worthy in and of itself. (But it seems to me that Dee's nomination for Mama Lucas provides an ever more direct answer to the slight of not being nominated in 1991 for her comparably elemental performance as the devastated Lucinda Purify in Spike Lee's underrated Jungle Fever.)
Ruby Dee's work in American Gangster is solid, worthy and memorable. And even if -- in and of itself -- it might not always seem like actressing of the edges for the ages, it's definitely a tasty cherry on the top of a really great cake she spent nearly seven decades baking. All of which is to say, (a) I'm just fine with Supporting Actress nominations being used to honor a lifetime of great work; (b) moreover, in the case of Ruby Dee, it's a worthy performance at the culmination of a truly extraordinary and largely untrophied career; and (c) I think Dee's probably the frontrunner for trophysnagging come Oscar day.