Monday, March 7, 2011

Family History

For Denzel Washington, moviemaking is very often a generational experience

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

“Let’s start with a verse from Proverbs,” Denzel Washington begins in what is to date the closest thing he’s written to an autobiography. “‘Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.’” This from a volume whose epigraph comes from James Baldwin: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.”
The book, A Hand to Guide Me, is a commemorative volume marking the centennial of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, a mentoring organization for which Washington is national spokesman. The book consists of dozens of essays from famous figures – Bill Clinton, Gloria Steinhem, Whoopi Goldberg, Hank Aaron and the like – describing the decisive role key adult figures have played in their lives.
The Boys and Girls Club played a pivotal role in Washington’s own life. Even when his father was still in the picture (though preaching on the road) it appears that the organization was nevertheless an important source of role models. Washington hung out at the local Mount Vernon branch from the time he was about six, writing of figures like a boy named Billy. “He pretty much ran the place – and let me tell you, he was a local treasure,” Washington writes. “Billy helped a lot of kids because he took an interest. He cared. And he made each of us feel like we had something to offer, like we were something special.” To this day, the actor reports, his signature derives from his attempt to copy the style of his childhood mentor.
Washington’s philanthropic work testifies to the depth this experience has had on him. So is the way he describes his understanding of child development. “Show Me a Successful individual and I’ll show you someone who didn’t want for positive influences in his or her life. I don’t care who you are or what you do for a living – if you do it well I’m betting there was someone cheering you on and showing you the way. I’ll lay even odds.”
I have not run across any statements on Washington’s part that such experiences are part of any formal criteria by which he has chosen film roles. But when one surveys his dozens of movies, it’s truly striking how many of them involve such intergenerational relationships. At first, unsurprisingly, Washington plays sons of one kid or another. Later, he transitions to father. There are lots of permutations on the theme; in recent years, he has been a paternal figure to females who range in age from child to adult. But whatever the variety, this core mentoring role is a central trope of his career.
It’s also a central trope in his vision of U.S. history. Washington has played a number of real-life figures, and a number of fictional ones in historical settings. Whatever the case, history is always to at least some degree personal – a father or child who inherits or transmits a legacy to others. The historical canvas, whether the Civil War or the Civil Rights movement, can be panoramic. But one way or another, his stories are typically family affairs.
In a small but important minority of cases, the patrimony is literal. We’ve already seen how an interracial father-son relationship plays out in the case of Carbon Copy. In Mississippi Masala, Washington’s character runs a family business with his brother; he’s close to their (widower) father, who is supportive, but particularly imposing. Actually, the more forceful presence in Washington’s son roles are mothers. By 1990, when he was 35 and old enough be a father himself, he appeared in Mo’ Better Blues as a selfish – but, thanks to the stringent discipline of his mother shown in flashback, hugely talented – leader of a jazz combo. The story is in large measure a tragedy, but it does end with Washington’s character as a father himself, married to a woman with whom he imposes (slightly less) stringent discipline on that child.
The pivotal document of Washington’s career-long fascination with fathers and sons in particular is Malcolm X. The destiny of the Spike Lee/Denzel Washington Malcolm is cinematically foreshadowed by the fact that he is the Reverend Earl Little’s son, who is portrayed far more positively than he is in the autobiography that is the primary source for the movie.  The actual Malcolm X does open with a description of his father, but the movie flashes back repeatedly to Malcolm’s childhood, and the towering stance of defiance his father took in mutiple family confrontations with the Ku Klux Klan before he was finally murdered. This defiance is resurrected by a son who also refuses to allow the prospect of a violent death to silence him.
The movie – again proportionally more than the book – is also at some pains to establish Malcolm the Nation of Islam convert as a devoted husband and father, even as his activism pulls him away from home. And for all his unshakeable militancy – his lifelong insistence on white supremacy as the primary problem, his dismissal of “Uncle Tom Negro Preachers” and laws enforced by those who have “traded in their white sheets for police uniforms” – Malcolm espoused the protection of black women and children in terms that just about any mid-20th century middle-class whites would find recognizable if they were capable of hearing. Hence this rendition of a speech to an interracial audience at Columbia University (right after the famous real-life incident in which a student came up to Malcolm and asked what a well-meaning white person could do to improve race relations, and be told “nothing”):

Mr. Muhammad is trying to get us on God’s side, so that God will be on our side to help us fight our battles. When Negroes stop getting drunk, stop being addicted to drugs, stop fornicating and committing adultery. When we get off the welfare, then we’ll be MEN. Earn what you need for your family, then your family respects you. They’ll be proud to say ‘That’s my father.’ She’s proud to say ‘That’s my husband.’ ‘Father’ means you’re taking care of those children. Just because you made them that don’t mean you’re a father. Anybody can make a baby, but anybody can’t take care of them. Anyone can go get a woman, but anybody can’t take care of a woman.

   Other Washington fathers are not quite so formidable. In He Got Game, Washington plays a convict given a furlough to convince his son, a high school basketball star, to accept a scholarship at the alma mater of a state governor. Father and son are already estranged over the circumstances in the accidental death of their wife/mother, and this unspoken agenda only complicates matters further for a man who nevertheless wants what’s best for his child, even if they repeatedly disagree about what that means.
Coming next: Washington as surrogate parent.