Early on in the new Denzel Washington/Russell Crowe gangster flick American Gangster, Crowe’s Detective Richie Roberts makes a crucial decision. When he and his partner stumble upon a car filled with a million dollars of drug money in it, he is adamant that they take the money back to the precinct instead of pocketing it themselves. His partner argues they have to keep it for themselves, because if they turn it in—which is the opposite of what half the cops in New York would do—then they’ll be ostracized by their own.
In the end, Roberts wins the argument, but his partner’s words prove prophetic. Their colleagues give them evil glares and talk behind their backs, and in one scene where Roberts calls for backup, he is denied support once he identifies himself. By doing the right thing, Roberts ends up standing out in a crowd of officers of the law who are more interested in lining their pockets than in doing genuine police work.
Throughout the film, people continue to bring up the subject of the money. In one case, when Roberts is holding the first meeting of the newly created New York City branch of the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), someone asks if Roberts and his partner really turned in a million dollars. He responds in the affirmative and asks if anyone has a problem with that—and everyone raises their hands. At this point, all the people in the room—including Roberts—proceed to have a good laugh about the subject before moving on, but there’s something sad about a situation where a person can be ridiculed for doing the right thing as though this makes him some kind of idiot.
Every day we have choices to make. Sometimes they are mundane (paper or plastic?), sometimes they are enormous (closed casket or open?), but ultimately, even if no one else knows about the choices we make, we will always know and we will have to live with them.
In one of the movie’s final scenes, when Washington’s gangster, Frank Lucas, and Roberts meet face to face, Lucas asks him if he would pass up the money again. Lucas follows this up by pointing out the likelihood that although he did not take the money, someone else on the force did. Roberts responds that even if this is the case, at least his conscience is clear.
It should not be so surprising when someone stands up and displays principles simply because many of the people around them do not hold these values, but oftentimes that is exactly what happens. And even if the good we do only gives someone else the chance to make the wrong decision we weren’t willing to make, at least we can know that in that situation, at that moment, we passed the test that was before us. Maybe someone else will see us. Maybe they will be given reason to stop and think about how they would react in a similar situation. Maybe that instance will give them the strength they need to make the right decision when their test comes.