The quintessential Denzel Washington roles are those of mentor and/or protégé
The following post is part of an ongoing series on Denzel Washington in particular, and Hollywood actors as historians generally.
As we've seen, a number of Denzel Washington films feature biological fathers and sons, with the actor portraying both. Most often, however, the father/son figures in Washington movies are surrogates. The plot of A Soldier’s Story is a whodunit revolving around a repellent black sergeant named Waters (Adolph Caesar) who makes the lives of the soldiers around him miserable, particularly the musically and athletically gifted private C.J. Memphis (Larry Riley). When Washington’s character, Petersen, challenges this ill-treatment, Waters demands the two settle their differences with fight, which Caesar wins by throwing sand in Petersen’s face and knocking him out. Ironically, however, we later learn that Caesar liked Petersen and indeed planned to promote him. (“Pete fought back, another character explains. Sarge liked that.”) But Peterson does not reciprocate in a relationship that culminates in figurative parricide. As such, A Soldier’s Story is an outlier on the Washingtonian spectrum, a cautionary tale to both fathers and sons about how not to serve each other, and thus how not to advance the race.
The other end of the spectrum is represented by another soldier’s story: Glory. Once again Washington plays a rebellious son in the character of Trip. The father this time is Sgt. Rawlins, played by Morgan Freeman, whose promotion reflects his social skills with his fellow soldiers and as a mediating figure between them and their commanding white officer, Col. Robert Gould Shaw (Matthew Broderick). Rawlins shows tenderness toward the drummer boy in the regiment – the legendary Massachusetts 54th – and one of the most moving moments of the film occurs when the troops arrive in South Carolina, joyously greeted by black residents there. “That’s right, it ain’t no dream,” Rawlins tells a clutch of children who trail the marching soldiers. “We run away slaves, and come back fighting men. Go tell your folks – our kingdom come in the land of Jubilee!”
In Glory, it’s Washington the son who oppresses those around him, particularly Searles (Andre Braugher), Shaw’s childhood friend, who Trip repeatedly calls “snowflake” and a “nigger” who acts as “the white man’s dog.” Rawlins shows restraint amid these and other provocations, but finally intervenes here like a child scolding an errant child. “And what are you?” he asks Trip. “So full of hate you just want to go off and fight everybody ’cause you’ve been whipped and chased by hounds. Well, that might not be livin,’ but it sure as hell ain’t dyin’. And dyin’ is what these white boys have been don’t for goin’ on three years now . . . You watch who you callin’ a nigger. If there’s any niggers around here, it’s you. Smart-mouth, stupid-ass, swamp-runnin’ nigger. You don’t watch out, that’s all you ever gonna be.”
The effect of this rebuke, while not immediate, is decisive. The ensuing experience of combat brings all these men together. On the eve of what many of them know will be a suicidal attack, they gather around a campfire to musically testify their love for each other in a classic call-and-response styled song. Trip finds this hard to do, but is coached into speaking up by Rawlins. “Y’all the onliest family I got,” Trip tells them, and they affirm him in unison. The next day Trip will die bearing the regimental colors he had rejected earlier in the movie. But he will do so as a prodigal son redeemed by a wise father. One is also reminded here of John 15:3: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” In successfully achieving a relationship of mutual respect and affection with a man from a different generation, Trip is able to channel his rage righteously and strike a blow for freedom for all his people. In so doing becoming a founding father of post-emancipation America.
As it turns out, Washington’s Malcolm X is at least as interested in surrogate father-son relationships as he is literal ones. Indeed, one way to understand is story, particularly in the movie, is Malcolm’s search for a father to replace the one he lost in childhood. He finds one in West Indian Archie (Delroy Lindo) in his hustling days, in Baines (Albert Hall) while in prison, and then the Honorable Elijah Mohammed (Al Freeman Jr.) upon gaining his literal and figurative freedom. Each of these men ultimately proves to be a disappointment. But despite this, Malcolm takes his own responsibilities for surrogacy very seriously, and is rewarded with deep loyalty and affection by a number of aides. Ironically, at one point in the movie this commitment leads him to send an associate away, because he believed the young man had an overriding obligation to the Elijah Mohammed with whom he was estranged than to Malcolm himself. Though he loses his temper in the final moments of the movie, he recovers and apologies, and it is this sense of disciplined integrity, which radiated outward from to encompass a global vision of pan-African unity, that becomes his final legacy.
In Malcolm X, then, Washington is both a father and a son, and this is yet one more way in which the film is a fulcrum in this career. He would play a virtual son again in Crimson Tide (1995) as a naval officer forced to challenge an overly gung-ho superior (Gene Hackman). But from here on out he’s mostly the father.
Sometimes this role is indirect but nevertheless decisive. In the intentionally (and unintentionally) awkward buddy film Heart Condition (1990), Washington is a slick attorney who dies in a car crash, his heart transplanted into an ailing racist cop (Bob Hoskins). From that point on he’s a ghost visible only to Hoskins, and the two bicker their way to Hoskins reuniting with his prostitute girlfriend, followed by marriage and a child. We viewers see Washington as a faded presence in a group photograph. Love is a solvent that dissolves racial barriers.
Very often Washington fathers are less men who act directly in this capacity than people for whom fatherhood becomes a catalyst for change in other aspects their lives. The Joe Miller we meet at the beginning of Philadelphia is an ambulance-chasing lawyer with no interest in representing the AIDS-afflicted Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) in a wrongful termination suit. But the birth of his daughter seems to begin a process of softening his hard heart, perhaps because he comes to see Beckett as somebody’s child (and perhaps because Beckett takes instant interest in the photo of the infant of Miller’s desk and follows up on it when they run into each other later).
All this said, one of the great satisfactions in watching Washington’s career unfold is the seemingly effortless combination of grace and heft by which he repeatedly becomes a father figure. In Remember the Titans (2000) he doubles as a literal and figurative father in the role of the real-life Herman Boone, who presided over the racial integration of a suburban Virginia high school football team in 1971. In John Q, his fierce devotion to his seriously ill, but seriously underinsured, son leads him to take the inhabitants of a Chicago hospital’s emergency room hostage. But even the hostages find themselves on his side (along the way, he straightens out the boorish and juvenile man on how to treat his girlfriend). Even when Washington is a downright evil surrogate father, as he is in Training Day, he’s nevertheless mesmerizing, in part because you keep thinking for a long time that his evil acts may yet be part of some larger redemptive design conducted for his young partner’s (Ethan Hawke’s) benefit.
It is surely no accident that the two films Washington has directed are both mentoring stories. (In both cases, he hoped not to act in them, but in both cases the studios in question insisted on exploiting his box office clout, and in both cases he plays the father figure.) Antwone Fisher (2002) is a minor legend in the film business, because the real-life character upon the movie is based worked as a security guard on the lot of Sony Pictures, where he hawked his screenplay to anyone who would take it. The final product, the result of about five years of development with Washington and based on the 2001 book Finding Fish, tells the story of a sexually and emotionally abused child who struggles to overcome inner demons in the U.S. Navy to find love and an emotionally stable life. Washington plays the composite character of a Navy psychiatrist, Dr. Jerome Davenport (coincidentally, the same last name as the investigator played by Harold Rollins Jr. in A Soldier’s Story). In the movie we see Davenport has his own (marital) struggles, and his relationship with Fisher, is far from smooth. But Davenport is nevertheless able to serve as the necessary father-figure in a reciprocally positive relationship that allows Fisher to make the transition to adulthood.
For Washington, it’s clear, Antwone Fisher represented a merger of artistic and personal interests. “I’ve always gotten a lot of joy out of seeing other people do well,” he said Charlie Rose in 2002, who noted that Washington had made the project using largely unknown actors and an untested screenwriter. Washington also cast his decision to make the film, amid the inevitable uncertainties of the movie business, in terms of honoring a commitment to the real-life Fisher. “I promised Antwone that I would take care of him,” he explained. “He’s been through enough in his life, and I said, ‘I won’t mess you up.’” In the larger scheme of Washington’s career, Antwone Fisher is a small film (it made less than he typically gets paid for a big-budget shoot-em-up). But it’s a significant bellwether in terms of his cultural and historical priorities.
The second film Washington directed, The Great Debaters, is even more saturated in fatherhood of various kinds. Once again, he plays a real-life figure, this time the poet/professor/activist Melvin B. Tolson (1898-1966), who built and ran a highly successful debating team from the 1920s into the 1940s at Wiley College, an African Methodist Episcopal institution in Marshall Texas. The movie focuses on his relationship with three of his charges: the brilliant-but-volatile Henry Lowe (Nate Parker); the talented but vulnerable Samantha Booke (Jurnee Smollett), based on a real-life figure; and child prodigy James L. Farmer Jr., the real-life son of James L. Farmer Sr., who was president of Wiley in the 1930s. The Farmers are portrayed by another father-son duo: the esteemed actor/director Forrest Whittaker and the adolescent Denzel Whittaker, named after Washington.
Though it is threaded with subplots, the core of The Great Debaters focuses on Tolson’s efforts to overcome internal and external fissures between himself and his charges as they gradually build an interracial reputation for themselves that culminates in an invitation to debate at Harvard (the real team debated at the University of Southern California). Tolson mentors each of these three in different ways that include gently guiding Lowe and Booke through their tempestuous romance. James Farmer Jr. has his own father, who is a formidable figure worthy of emulation. But it’s one of the subtleties of the film that Tolson represents an alternative male role model – particularly in his Civil Rights work among poor farmers in the dangerous racial climate of Texas during the Great Depression – and that Tolson and Farmer Sr. can maintain a relationship of mutual respect amid political disagreement.
The potency of this message of racial and gender solidarity is quite powerful when one considers who James L. Farmer Jr. became: a founder of the Congress of Racial Equality in 1942, and a guiding light of the Freedom Rides of the 1960s, truly one of the most courageous undertakings in American history, in which an interracial group of activists subjected themselves to brutal beatings as part of a successful effort to destroy Jim Crow segregation in the South. It is perhaps one of the unfortunate byproducts of the momentous changes of the 1960s that we sometimes lose sight of their origins in activism of the 1930s and 40s. Washington’s decision to make this picture – and, one might add, his $1 million gift to reinstitute Wiley’s debate team – is thus an important contribution to collective memory of African American history. The implicit message of The Great Debaters is clear: Good fathers make great men. And great men make history.
Next: Washington as father-figure to daughters.