Thursday, February 17, 2011

Washington's Heights

The following is the first in series of posts about Denzel Wasington, part of a larger project on Hollywood Actors as Historians. --JC
 Roger Ebert didn’t much like the 1998 movie Fallen. Nothing unusual about that; as the reigning dean in the dwindling ranks of movie reviewers – in these days of disappearing newspapers and proliferating blogs, everyone’s a critic – Ebert routinely, though always respectfully, expressed disappointment. What was somewhat more surprising was Ebert’s disappointment with Denzel Washington. Ebert was among the first to recognize Washington’s tremendous potential. Back in 1989, he praised Washington’s performance in the-now obscure movie The Mighty Quinn as “one of those roles that creates a movie star overnight.” Ebert went on to say that Washington acted in an effortless way that reminds me of Robert Mitchum, Michael Caine, or Sean Connery, “able to play a hero and yet not take himself too seriously.” He would go on to render similar praise many times in subsequent years, on two occasions stating that Washington movies had brought him to tears (and one of those occasions emphasizing how rarely this happens).
But Ebert was not moved by Fallen, a supernatural serial killer movie in which Washington plays Detective John Hobbes (that’s Hobbes as in Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher that argued that life was “nasty, brutish, and short”) who fights the satanic soul escaped from the body of a serial killer and now moves from person to person around him. Washington, Ebert wrote, “is convincing as a cop, but perhaps not the best choice for the role of Hobbes, which requires more of a noir personality. There's something essentially hopeful and sunny about Washington, and the best noir heroes encounter grim news as if they were expecting it. There should be, at the core of the protagonist in any noir story, guilt and shame, as if they feel they deserve their fate. Washington plays Hobbes more like a conventional hero, and doesn't internalize the evil.”

No one was more aware of this sunny perception of the actor than Washington himself, who took active steps to change it. His performance of a rogue cop in the 2001 movie Training Day won him an Academy Award as Best Actor, no doubt in part because Academy voters were aware of what an artistic stretch it was. In 2007, he gave a performance of decided moral ambiguity in American Gangster, embodying the role of the real life Frank Lucas, who ran a hugely successful business as a Harlem heroin importer before turning police informant. Ebert, respectful of both performances, was not enchanted with either of them. He thought Washington’s role in Training Day was so over-the-top in its villainy as to strain credulity.
Making allowances for Washington’s genuine achievements in such roles, and in Ebert’s capacity to recognize that an actor can grow or simply defy earlier characterizations, I still believe the critic’s characterization of “something essentially hopeful and sunny about Washington” rings true. Even when he plays tortured souls, like the fierce Malcolm X or defiant Hurricane Carter, an undeniable glow of charisma flickers close to the surface of these characters. Washington can’t entirely hide his likeability, and the attempt to do so only makes him more compelling.
And it’s this core disposition, much like Katherine Hepburn’s irrepressible intelligence, or Humphrey Bogart’s hard-boiled virtue, that can explain much of Washington’s durable appeal as a movie star. Which is incontestable: In the annual Field Harris Poll for America’s Favorite Movie Star, Washington placed in the top ten every year of this century (including three years in a row at #1 between 2006 and 2008). In 2003 he attained the rarified status of commanding a $20 million for a single picture to appear in as a small-town Florida police chief in Out of Time. Washington has appeared in 39 feature films in the thirty years since his debut in Carbon Copy in 1981, to speak nothing of television appearances or celebrated stage roles like leads in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 2005 or August Wilson’s Fences in 2010. To watch him be interviewed by Charlie Rose, which the generally reclusive star has done a number of times in the last decade, is to be struck by a tremendous magnetism that draws its paradoxical appeal from its very unpretentiousness.

There is the small matter that Washington happens to be a black man. There is a long – and troubling – history of American love affairs with a certain kind of genial, unchallenging black actor, like Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson or Hattie McDaniel. The last great archetypal figure in this regard was Sidney Poitier, who struggled with an ambivalence about being a white person’s notion of an acceptable black person for much of his career. In some respects, Washington is a direct cinematic heir of Poitier’s; indeed it was Washington who presented Poitier with a lifetime achievement award at the 2002 Oscar ceremonies, the very night Washington himself took home a statuette for Training Day. (In something of a trifecta, Halle Berry also won an Oscar for her performance in Monster’s Ball.) “Forty years I've been chasing Sidney, they finally give it to me, what'd they do?” They give it to him the same night!” Washington joked in his acceptance speech. “I'll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir.”
And yet, as everyone understands, much of Washington’s success is understood in terms of the ways he's not Poitier, the way he doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of being a (saintly) black actor instead of a black actor. Early on in his career, the young Washington won a small part in the 1986 Sidney Lumet film Power that had originally been written for a middle-aged white man. Ever since, he has repeatedly taken roles that were either changed or not racially marked in the first place. Such choices important not only to him, but to a white America whose collective self-esteem rests on a notion of racial Progress.
And the same time, Washington also enjoys a high regard among African Americans on their own terms. The very term “Denzel” connotes a masculine brand.  “My man is smooth like Barry [White], and his voice got bass/A body like Arnold [Schwarzenegger] with a Denzel face,” goes the lyric of the 1993 hit song “Whatta Man” by the female hip-hop trio Salt-n-Pepa. In the 2010 book The Denzel Principle: Why Black Women Can’t Find Good Black Men, author jimi izrael laments the challenges of living up to a daunting archetype. And his appearance in four Spike Lee movies, most prominently Malcolm X (1992) gives Washington a kind of street cred he’s managed to maintain alongside his mass appeal.
But to return to my (actually, Roger Ebert’s) original point: the core of Washington’s appeal is his essential moderation. Actually, I’ll go a step further and say that to a great degree he is a conservative star for a conservative age. Certainly there have been alternatives; Washington’s fame has coincided with that of impressive peers like Don Cheadle and Delroy Lindo, whose appeal lies in their intimidating presence – and the ability to regard it at a safe distance on a screen. It’s striking to consider, for example, that Washington has never had an interracial romance with a white woman in any of his movies, though he did have one with an Indian woman in the 1992 film Mississippi Masala, directed by Mira Nair. Such a romance was written out of the 1995 film The Pelican Brief, based on a John Grisham novel in which the character was both white and sexually involved with the woman played by Julia Roberts. Washington himself has expressed unease about such roles, not wanting to do for the sake of doing so (he’s not fond of lovemaking scenes generally).
This sense of diffidence extends to racial issues off-screen as well. After making the observation that as a result of Hollywood sexism in the availability of roles, “Men get older while women get younger,” Charlie Rose pressed Washington about whether he thought race was a factor too. “It depends,” he said, deflecting the question in the direction of whether race mattered in the makeup of specific character. Washington does not deny the reality of racism even in his own life; he told the Today show he can still get in an elevator and have a woman grab her purse more tightly (“I want to take out my wallet and just tap her on the head and say, ‘Honey, don’t worry about it. I think I’ve got a couple more dollars than you,” he joked). But this literally became a noteworthy item worthy of reporting.
At one point early in the process of researching this chapter, I was going to call it “Affirmative Actor.” The idea was to capture Washington’s place in African American cultural history as a post-Civil Rights figure, as well as appealingly upbeat persona. As I got deeper into his body of work, however, I concluded that, conceptually speaking, “Affirmative Actor” doesn’t go far enough. In part, that’s because it misses this conservative strain I’m talking about, a conservatism that’s more social than political, and one that’s not specifically racial. For example, in marked contrast to many of his Hollywood peers, Washington is a devoted family man – he’s been married to the same woman for decades and has raised four children. This real-life role as a family man is actually a fairly useful lens through which to view his body of work.
More specifically, many of Washington’s roles circle around the relationship between fathers and sons, literal and figurative. History – African American history particularly, but U.S. history generally, -- is fundamentally a matter of generations and their relationship with each other. It informs Washington’s notion of progress, measured in terms of secular achievement, monetary and otherwise. It also shapes his notion of how social change is the result of honoring a bond of reciprocal responsibility between generations. Finally, and perhaps most decisively, Washington’s notion of fathers and sons has a powerful religious element grounded in a subtle but discernible spiritual life.
I have no sense that this father/son dynamic is an active, conscious choice. Indeed, compared with figures like Clint Eastwood and Daniel Day-Lewis, Washington is less deliberative, more spontaneous figure. So tracing these threads is more challenging, but still possible, and, I believe, worthwhile. Let’s work through each in turn.

Next: A biographical sketch.