Thursday, March 17, 2011

Daddy's Girls

In a great many movies, Denzel Washington plays the role of surrogate father. But not all his children are sons

The following post is part of an ongoing series on Denzel Washington in particular, and Hollywood actors as historians generally.

The overall tenor of Washington’s approach to fatherhood has been in terms of sons, but there have also been biological daughters who figure into picture (e.g. an infant in Philadelphia, little girls in Remember the Titans, and grown daughters in Unstoppable). One of the more interesting dimensions of his trajectory as an actor in recent decades has been his role as a surrogate father to women. As we’ve seen, interracial sexual relationships have been something of a taboo for him. But some of his most satisfying work has come out of working with females in other capacities.
The first important example of this, albeit indirect, is Courage Under Fire (1996).  In the movie Washington plays Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling, a tank battalion commander involved in a friendly-fire incident during the Persian Gulf War, which we see in the opening sequence of the film. To avoid embarrassment, the Army covers up the incident, decorating Serling for his valor (real enough) but relegating him to a desk job back in Washington. He is assigned the task of investigating whether Army Captain Karen Emma Walden (Meg Ryan), who was killed in action, is eligible to be first woman to ever win the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in combat. The White House is eager for political reasons to grant the medal, but Serling discovers fishy inconsistencies in the stories of Walden’s peers, which are rendered in Roshomon-like flashbacks. Suffice it to say that the story proves to be more complicated than it appears. For Serling, whose relationship with his wife and children have suffered since his return, the Walden case increasingly becomes part of a redemptive quest for truth about his own past no less than that of Walden, whom he has never met. In setting her record straight, he can set himself free no less than her grieving parents and daughter.
 A much more direct example of surrogacy is provided by Man on Fire. In some respects, this film, one of five Washington has done with director Tony Scott, is a mediocre movie. Set in Mexico amid the violent kidnappings of wealthy people for ransom, Man on Fire typifies Scott’s visually stylized, violent approach to moviemaking. It’s also a movie I regard as racist; the clear implication in the movie is that it takes a Yanqui (in what might be meant as a form of progress, a black Yanqui) to exact justice Mexicans are unable to achieve themselves. This is a trope in cinematic history that goes back a long way, at least as far as The Magnificent Seven (1960) a half-century ago. That said, Washington does some of the best acting of his career, a good chunk of it ad-libbed, with nine year-old Dakota Fanning, who plays the child in a family for whom Washington, a washed-up, alcoholic CIA agent, has been hired to serve as bodyguard. In a narrative arc you can spot a mile away, Washington starts out as the stony hired gun whose heart gets melted by a little girl. But the chemistry between the two is undeniable, and, by the time the movie ends, entirely believable. (I’ll have more to say about this momentarily.)
 A similar example of Washington finding compelling fatherly rapport with a female character in a subpar movie is The Bone Collector (1999). Here he plays Lincoln Rhyme, a forensics expert injured in an accident and rendered paralyzed. Depressed to the point of suicide, he is called asked to assist in the pursuit of a serial killer, which he does from the hospital bed in his New York apartment (the convoluted plot is one of the film’s weaknesses). Along the way, he develops a professional relationship – and, increasingly, a personal investment – in a young police officer played by Angelina Jolie. Naturally, she’s confronted by hostility by her allies and the danger posed by her quarry, and, naturally, she’s able to overcome such hurdles with Washington’s aid. And, naturally, she coaxes him back from an emotional cliff and sets him on the road to psychological healing.
A Washington character performs similar work in The Book of Eli. When Eli arrives in a town run by a local warlord played by Gary Oldman, Oldman initially courts him by sending a young minion (Mila Kunis) to seduce him. Eli rejects her advances – and rejects her efforts to join him as he strives to complete his mission to deliver a bible to a California community. But she wears him down and the two form a durable bond that will outlast Eli’s death.
As he moved into the 21st century, Washington’s capacity and believability as a mentor to black males and white females began to extend to white men as well. One move in this direction was his performance as Major Bennett Marco, the superior officer of Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schreiber) in Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate. The remake cleverly repositions a Cold War tale as one of corporate corruption, leaving in place its science-fiction elements of mind-control and the juicy role of a castrating mother (Angela Lansbury last time; Meryl Streep this time). For our purposes what matters is the convincing chemistry between Washington’s and Schreiber’s characters in one of those cases where we’re meant to, and can, see them in a colorblind fashion. One reason we can is that the point-of-view in the 2004 is much more oriented around Marco than the original, which works because Washington is an instinctively appealing figure.
Indeed, by the second decade of the century, Washington, now a middle-aged man, was no longer the obvious stuff of teenage fantasy he had been in the 1980s and 90s. But his literal heft was accompanied by an artistic one. In particular, he was now able to play a working-class character – as he does in the role of a train conductor in Unstoppable – with a sense of unselfconscious security that might have once been difficult for him. He simultaneously plays the role of seasoned veteran to the rookie played by Chris Pine, their gruff hostility sanded down into mutual respect amid their ordeal in grappling with a runaway train. At a time when “working-class” was often considered synonymous with “white,” and a year marked by a surprising absence of strong black characters in the movie, Washington occupied an important place on the nation’s cultural landscape as a father-figure. 
In recent years, Washington has begun citing Clint Eastwood as a role model for where he wishes to go in his career,  and one can indeed see him acting and directing movies for a long time to come. Eastwood is also an interesting parallel for Washington, because, as we’ve seen, he also evolved into a father figure over the course of his career. There are, I think, two important differences, however. One is that Eastwood surrogate families have a more jagged, self-consciously alternative quality to them than Washington’s – he’s always played more of an outsider, even considering the racial marginalization endemic to American life. The other is that there has always been a more obvious and comfortable spiritual dimension suffusing Washington’s work, another father who has loomed over his career. It’s to that Father that we will now turn.

Coming soon: God and Denzel Washington