The following post is part of an ongoing series about Denzel Washington's vision of U.S. History, part of a larger project with the working title "Sensing the Past: Hollywood Actors as Historians."
Cinematically speaking, the first look we get at Denzel Washington is also the closest look we get at anything resembling a counterculture figure. In the 1981 movie Carbon Copy – starring George Segal, Susan Saint-James, Jack Warden, and “Introducing Denzel Washington” – he plays Roger Porter, a late adolescent who shows up at the Southern California corporate office of a wealthy white corporate executive named Walter Whitney (Segal) and declares he is the son of a woman with whom Whitney had an interracial tryst many years earlier. He is saddened to learn that the boy’s mother is now dead, but repelled by Porter, who arrives wearing dark glasses and a T-Shirt bearing an image of the African continent with a heart in the middle. “Nothing ratty-tatty about this place!” he declares, taking in the dark-wood paneled walls. “And that’s how it should be where the hog is fat. No meat scraps – we’re talking T-bone steaks!” (Black dialogue is only one of the script’s deficiencies.) The boy sits with his feat up at Whitney’s desk, making what could plausibly be deemed an ominous declaration: “Here I was thinking I was just another poor black orphan boy going to freeze in the cold white world.” Whitney asks about the boy’s father, and is told “You know how it is with us colored folks. We ain’t much for marryin.’” When Whitney objects to Porter talking about his own mother this way, Porter responds, “Of course not being married didn’t make my mother less of a woman. It just made my father less of a man.” Naturally, that father is Whitney himself.
A good white liberal, Whitney tries to make room for the boy in his life, and this becomes the comic premise of what is now a dated movie. Whitney is trapped in a loveless marriage, his career dependent on his domineering father-in-law. Their gaudy racism sends his life into a downward spiral, one Porter only seems to exacerbate. At one point Whitney is appalled when, after wondering if his son is literate, the boy responds by inviting him to rub his kinky hair for good luck. Conversely, he’s appalled when he loses a bet in a pickup game because Porter has unexpectedly poor basketball skills. The two end up in a ghetto apartment, and when the police mistakenly believe Porter is involved in a robbery, Whitney hides him and tries to run away, getting arrested himself. Porter visits his father in jail, revealing his behavior to be a ruse. “I didn’t want anything from you,” he explains, saying the point was never to extract money or a trust fund. “I didn’t want you to like me because I was your son. I wanted you to respect me because I was Mom’s son. But I looked in your eyes and you didn’t see Mom. You saw black.” Whitney is released from jail, and as a result of new clarity in his life is freed from his wife and father-in-law’s clutches. He also learns that Roger is in fact a scholarship student at Northwestern, Whitney’s own alma mater. The two ride off into the sunset headed back to Chicago.
One of the things that makes Carbon Copy weak movie is Washington’s performance. His well-scrubbed cheer compromises the credibility of his ghetto masquerade, and while this arguably the point – a father who can’t really see his son for who he is – his acting can’t quite escape the tinny quality of the movie around him. He is, for all his evident promise, miscast. That’s the thing about people with movie star quality: their identities transcend their roles. It’s hard to make Katherine Hepburn a housewife. Or Jack Nicholson a psychotherapist.
This is surely one reason why in seventeen of his next twenty feature film roles, Washington plays some variety of a middle-class professional – police chief, journalist, naval officer, politico. There are exceptions (I’ll be getting to them momentarily), but such roles will be the general rule for the rest of his career. This is, to put it mildly, not a representative sample of U.S. society. That might not mean much in the case of a white actor. But in the case of a black one it amounts to a political statement about the arrival of African Americans in mainstream society. (Somewhere W.E.B. DuBois – the young DuBois, the one who still believed in racial integration and the pivotal leadership role of a “talented tenth” working on behalf of Negro people as a whole – is smiling. The later one who became a Communist: Not so much.) And although it’s not typically as clear as it is in the case of the scholarship boy of Carbon Copy, that arrival is typically understood to be recent. Washington’s characters are not black princes, but rather black Horatio Algers.
Washington’s message of integration is a multivalent one. In some cases, like the aforementioned one of Sidney Lumet rewriting a script to give Washington the part of an elegant political fixer who stalks and threatens the media consultant (Richard Gere) in Power, the black character’s presence is mean to be taken for granted. In others, it’s meant to send an overt message that times have changed. At one point in Alan J. Pakula’s The Pelican Brief, Washington plays a reporter who meets his boss (Donald Sutherland) at Mount Vernon (as in George Washington’s Mount Vernon). Sutherland’s character is annoyed with Washington’s because he’s been impossible to reach. “I thought of dropping you into the ranks of the unemployed,” he says wryly, “but I know damn well you’d slap me with a discrimination suit.” In still other cases, like Cry Freedom, Washington is an activist engaging in direct advocacy on explicitly racial terms. Yet for all the diversity of these integrationist arguments, they’re all conducted in a context of Washington portraying people with literal and figurative capital, whether measured in professional skills, patterns of consumption, social status, or family values. This is true even when a character’s hold on such status is precarious, as it is for the small business owner of Mississippi Masala. (Somewhere Marcus Garvey is smiling.)
Though it may sound odd, I consider Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X as one of those seventeen middle-class roles. In an important sense, of course, that’s ridiculous: the fiery Civil Rights leader began his life as a criminal and became a convert to a religion specifically predicated on a rejection of many core tenets of American society. But Washington’s Malcolm is a surprisingly chaste figure. To be sure, he is portrayed as having a flamboyant youth, but Washington – who played an important role in developing the character with Spike Lee – pulls punches. Yes, their Malcolm takes drugs, but he isn’t seen dealing them, the way he was in real life. Nor is he seen as a pimp. His vices are in any case less important than his eventual conversion to Islamic piety, a journey he takes with a sense of discipline and intellectual rigor that would warm the heart of a chilly Puritan. And while his political activities inevitably meant he is absent from home much of the time, Malcolm as a family man is portrayed as positively Eisenhowerian. As one of the mysterious agents tapping his phone line observes to another while Malcolm chats with his wife, “this guy makes [Martin Luther] King look like a monk.”
Of the three characters in Washington’s early career that cannot really be considered bourgeois, two are rank-and-file soldiers: the runaway slave Trip of Glory and Private Pete Peterson of A Soldier’s Story. As Washington made clear at the time of Glory’s release, he had repeatedly rejected roles of slaves, clearly mindful of what that would literally project to audiences. But it is evident that to a great extent Glory can be understood in terms of Trip’s struggle to overcome his own resistance to his evident leadership ability, ability evident even to the commanding (white) officer who has him whipped. Petersen’s (black) commanding officer holds him in similarly high regard, but Petersen rejects him even more decisively than Trip does his in an ending that may well make Petersen as the most radical of all characters in Washington’s oeuvre. (Indeed, I’ll speculate that had the movie been made a few years later, when Washington’s persona was more firmly established and he had more control over it, he may well have ended up with the lead role of the officer who leads the murder investigation at the heart of the film, played by Harold Rollins, Jr.) The third exception to the pattern I’m describing is The Preacher’s Wife (1997): Here Washington is an angel. And yet in an important sense Washington’s angel is more professional than his predecessor. The Preacher’s Wife is a remake of the 1948 film The Bishop’s Wife. In that movie, it was Cary Grant playing the angel, one who, tempted by his attraction to the spouse of a man he’s trying to help, confesses, “I’m tired of being a wanderer.” Washington’s angel shows no such weakness.
Over the course of the last fifteen years, Washington’s palette has widened somewhat. He played convicts again in Spike Lee’s He Got Game (1998) and The Hurricane a year later, though in both cases the incarceration of the characters is questionable at best (in the former, it’s the result of an accident; in the latter, it’s a travesty, though, as with Malcolm X, the filmmakers of The Hurricane soft-pedal Ruben Carter’s previous criminal record). In John Q. (2002) Washington is a desperate laid-off factory worker who resorts to taking hostages at a hospital for the sake of his son’s medical care. Easy Rawlins, another laid-off character in the Los Angeles of the 1940s, descends into the city’s underworld as a private eye in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), in large measure because he wants to keep up mortgage payments on the home whose ownership he cherishes. In important respects, all these characters have stout middle-class values most often expressed in the form of a steady work ethic. Even Frank Lucas, the ruthless criminal of American Gangster (2007), runs his heroin business with a stone-cold sobriety in sharp contrast to his peers like his real-life counterpart Nicky Barnes (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.).
The character of Lucas, whose behavior is in many respects monstrous, serves as an important reminder that sobriety is not the same thing as saintliness. Whatever their professional, personal, or material achievements, Washington characters are never paragons of virtue. His protagonists in Heart Condition (1990) and Philadelphia (1993) are slick attorneys. The military officer of Courage Under Fire (1996) and former CIA officer-turned-bodyguard of Man on Fire (2004) are alcoholics. The train dispatcher in the remake of the 1974 film The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) is a decent family man with a notable cool head in dealing with the terrorist played by John Travolta, but over the course of that movie we learn he was demoted for taking a bribe.
Still, at the end of the day – exceptions that prove the rule like Training Day notwithstanding – Denzel Washington characters are upwardly mobile (black) Americans with a stake in a system that generally has room for them, even when that room is on the margins, and even when that room is bounded by opposition. Yet another real-life Washington character, poet and activist Melvin Tolson of The Great Debaters (2007), is a college professor who secretly advises an interracial group of populist farmers seeking to resist the imprecations of greedy capitalists. And even when American society as we know it is gone, another Washington figure, the title character of The Book of Eli (2009), roams a post-apocalyptic dystopia and battles would be autocrats like that played by Gary Oldman, serving as a vessel of civilization. These are people who have fought long and hard to give their American Dreams a basis in reality. They’re not going to give it up without a fight.
And they’re not going to do it alone. Or for themselves alone.
Next: Washington & Sons (and daughters).