The following is the final in a series of posts about Denzel Washington, part of a larger project on Hollywood actors as historians.
One fact about Denzel Washington bears repeating as we head toward a conclusion: He’s the son of a minister. It’s possible to make too much of this, but his career trajectory suggests it counts for something.
Not that it’s obvious. Washington has labored in a Hollywood culture that is overwhelmingly secular, and one that has not had a terribly distinguished record of rendering, with much in the way of clarity or complexity, the realities of religious life. Most Hollywood movies about faith have taken one of two forms: big epics like The Robe (1953) and The Ten Commandments (1956), or specialty pictures with a specifically partisan audience, like The Passion of the Christ (2004). Movies that have tried to achieve historical verisimilitude and psychological depth, like Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), have had wobbly results in terms of box office, critical reception, or both.
What one occasionally sees are Hollywood movies with a profound, but implicit, sense of moral or religious commentary. Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (1994), for example, comes to mind as a film that’s not about Judaism in any obvious theological sense but nevertheless depicts the emergence of a sense of moral urgency on the part of (goyim) Oskar Schindler that’s rooted in the Torah – and which has a long final scene that roots its message in Jewish faith). Jonathan Demme’s Silence of the Lambs (1991) is, by most reckonings, a thriller about a serial killer. But [as I will discuss in another chapter?] it is a profound meditation on the mystery of goodness, of how the psychologically damaged figure played by Jodie Foster joins the FBI and does something she so evidently regards as utterly terrifying in trying to save the life of another person. (The childhood story she tells by which the movie gets its name is so powerful that it compels the colossally evil Hannibal Lector to aid her in her quest just because he finds her so interesting.)
To my knowledge, Denzel Washington has never discussed his religious views in any great detail publicly; indeed there’s reason to think the very idea would repel him, though one interviewer who noted that “Mr. Washington is known to be wary of reporters, especially when the questioning turns to his private life,” reported that Washington described his childhood as “family-oriented and religious.” Of course, such a fact would be largely irrelevant for an aspiring actor. It would only be when that actor achieved a level of success where his roles could reflect his own tastes and values that one could begin to detect a specific sensibility, whether political, religious, or some other kind.
As already noted, Washington’s breakthrough role was Glory. And as also noted, there is a powerfully moral and redemptive dimension to the character of Trip, who gives his life for a larger cause and is ultimately buried next to the white officer, one he regarded with skepticism, in a brotherhood of death. One of the ways this high-profile, prestige performance was important to Washington is that it allowed him to begin sculpting a religious sensibility alongside other kinds.
On the night he won his Academy Award for Glory, Washington attended the legendary party annually thrown by agent Irving “Swifty” Lazar, where he met the highly commercial producer Joel Silver. Silver offered Washington any one of eight starring roles in films he was developing. Much to Silver’s surprise, Washington chose Ricochet (1991), in which Washington plays a detective tormented by the escaped convict he had put in jail. By just about any standard, Ricochet is among the weakest works in Washington’s canon, and downright mediocre by the standards of its genre. But its graphic violence has a distinctly Old Testament eye-for-an-eye mentality. (The villain, played by John Lithgow, ends up literally hoist by his own petard.) One suspects, of course, Washington’s primary motive for taking the part was neither religious or artistic, but rather commercial in terms of building a career as a star. But he would show a perhaps surprising affinity for such roles for a good quarter-century after Ricochet, which suggests a bona fide interest in such films and the values they represent. That this is only part of a larger picture in Washington’s career is both clear and yet worth noting as such.
One need not stretch, infer, or speculate about what can plausibly be termed Washington’s signature role of Malcolm X. That’s minister Malcolm X. Secular liberals sometimes forget Malcolm – like the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. – was at his core a man of faith, and that the very essence of the Civil Rights movement was religious. One of the reasons Washington is so unforgettable in this movie is his ability to capture the rhythms and language of Malcolm’s preaching, and while that preaching was Islamic, it was rooted in the evangelical style of Malcolm’s own father, who, like Washington’s, was also a black Protestant minister. Because it is a great work of art, Malcolm X, like its original source material, is a great many things. But one of those things is surely a spiritual quest, a quest that dominates that last part of the movie.
Another indication of Washington’s interest in what might be termed an ecumenical African American religious culture is also indicated by The Preacher’s Wife, the first film he made with his own production company, Mundy Lane Entertainment (named after the street he grew up on in Mount Vernon). Directed by Penny Marshall, The Preacher’s Wife is a film of audacious translation. In The Bishop’s Wife, the original on which Preacher was based, the cleric in question was a white Episcopal Minister looking to build a new cathedral. The remake relocates the movie in a middle-class urban black community beset by much more mundane problems like a broken heating system. Both films are sentimental and predictable, but The Preacher’s Wife is more compelling as a relatively more authentic view of the kind of community not often represented in Hollywood, either in its religious values or its (musical) culture. The gospel choir led by Whitney Houston, who happens to be a decent actor as well as an extraordinary singer, helps a great deal in this regard.
In the final analysis, however, Washington’s ability to embody the archetype of a man of faith is most effective when it emerges organically out of characters who are not explicitly religious, but who say and do things over the course of a story that reveal such a dimension in their lives. A very good example – perhaps not coincidentally – is Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia. At the start of the movie, Washington’s character Joe Miller loses a case to his competitor, Tom Hanks’s Andrew Beckett, whose name evokes the memory of Saint Thomas Becket, the 12th century Archbishop of Canterbury who advised King Henry II but later fell from grace and was assassinated. Like his martyred forebear, Andrew Beckett enjoyed esteemed status in a powerful Philadelphia law firm before he suffers the social death of AIDS. Unable after multiple previous attempts to get an attorney to represent him in a wrongful termination suit, he turns to Miller, who also says no. (Miller’s reaction upon learning, after shaking hands with Beckett, that Beckett has AIDS is a painfully funny classic moment in the film; Miller can’t hide that he regards his hand as virtually radioactive and rushes off to his doctor after Beckett leaves.) Miller later tells his wife of his contempt for homosexuals, mocking them with facial and body gestures. “I admit it. I’m prejudiced,” he replies after his wife notes his bias. “I don’t like homosexuals. There. You got me.”
A turning point for Miller occurs when he spots Beckett at a law library and secretly witnesses the attempt of a clerk to segregate him from the rest of the researchers. Visibly if silently appalled by this, he steps forward to say hello to Beckett and break the tension. Though Miller never says he acts as a black man conscious of centuries of discrimination, the power of the scene is augmented by such racial optics. Miller takes on Beckett as a client, and befriends him as AIDS takes its toll.
The spiritual power of the movie intensifies as it moves toward its conclusion. At one point Beckett collapses in the courtroom and Demme’s camera suddenly sweeps up to view the scene from above, as if through the eyes of God. We then see Beckett surrounded by friends and family in the hospital, moving inexorably but compassionately toward what in the 19th century would have been called “a good death." (The tenderness with which his doctor treats him is in effect a medical fantasy.) Having won the lawsuit, Miller comes to visit Beckett at the hospital, who, in a comic gesture that alludes to their handshake earlier in the movie, taps his bed and waves his head to get Miller to sit beside him. This time Miller does so without hesitation. When Beckett falters after telling a joke (“What do you call a thousand lawyers chained together at the bottom of the ocean?” Beckett asks him. When Miller says he doesn’t know, Beckett delivers the punchline: “a good start.”), Miller carefully puts on Beckett’s oxygen mask on his face. The next lines seem worth quoting:
MILLER: See you later? (question asked in a spirit of confirmation)
BECKETT: Thanks for stopping by.
MILLER: I’ll see you again.
Quotidian dialogue, perhaps. But in the stillness of this scene, which cuts between intense close-ups of the two mens’ faces, it’s not hard to hear a transcendental subtext. The “stopping by” Beckett mentions can also be heard as gratitude for Miller’s earlier decision to intervene, like the Good Samaritan who paused to help the fallen Jew on the road to Jericho (Luke 10: 25-37). And as Miller can’t help but be aware by that point, his best hope for seeing Beckett again may well be in the afterlife (note that Beckett does not say he will see Miller later, only to have Miller affirm that he will). The scene is almost overwhelming in its understated simplicity.
Another Washington movie with a powerful, and specifically Christian, dimension is Hurricane. Like Malcolm X, Hurricane is many movies – among them a civil rights story, a legal drama, and a celebrity biopic. But prominent among them is a resurrection story. While no one is going to mistake Rubin Carter for a choirboy, he is Christ-like in that he was unjustly condemned to a life sentence, a death in all but name. So it is that he determinedly insists that his wife cut him off so that she can get on with her own life. And yet he persists in believing that he will be born again. His redemption arrives in the unlikely form of an adolescent child named Lesra Martin, himself a foster adoptee of a group of Canadians. Martin’s fascination with Carter’s case draws these Canadians in, and they shoulder the struggle to overturn his conviction. At one point during a pause in his retrial, Martin sits alone with Carter as he waits in a holding cell. A grateful surrogate father speaks to a faithful son in slow, measured biblical terms: “Lesra: short for Lazarus. He who has risen from the dead. Rubin, Genesis, Chapter 29, Verse 32: “Behold a son.” You put the two together and you behold a son who has risen from the dead. That’s no accident. Hate put me in prison. Love’s gonna bust me out.”
Love also redeems the character of John Creasy in Man on Fire. The Creasy we meet at the start of the film is an alienated alcoholic, albeit one who still has enough discipline to get, and take, what for him is clearly a second-rate job as a bodyguard for a wealthy Mexican (Marc Anthony), his Anglo wife (Radha Mitchell) and their daughter (the aforementioned Dakota Fanning). One crucial moment in the melting of Creasy’s heart takes place when Fanning’s character presents him with a medallion of St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes, which the preternaturally perceptive child recognizes is apropos. At another point, the child’s mother comes takes note of his leisure reading. “You read the bible?” she asks. “Sometimes,” he replies. “Does it help?” “Yeah, sometimes.” When, thanks to the perfidy of the child’s father – we come to see there’s a reason why he hired an alcoholic – his daughter is kidnapped, Creasy becomes utterly remorseless in his quest to rescue her in the classic eye-for-an-eye mentality typically of thrillers. But at the end of the film he makes the ultimate sacrifice for the child – shot and bleeding to death, we see blood on his hands reminiscent of stigmata – and our last view of him alive has him rubbing the St. Jude medallion.
Again, I feel compelled to repeat: Washington is not what a skeptical secularist would call a Jesus freak. He has become a movie star of global proportions precisely because he seems, for all his glamour, like an ordinary (black) guy, a normal human being. Since the overwhelming majority of us are believers in one form or another – and African Americans are among the most religious of all Americans – it’s not especially surprising that God is in the picture. So it is that in The Book of Eli we in effect get to have it both ways: Washington plays a (blind) hero who can dispense thugs with a mere sweep of his terrible swift sword, and a pilgrim with a self-appointed mission to keep civilization alive by delivering a Braille bible to the asylum that once was Alcatraz.
Which brings us back to where this whole discussion started: Fallen. “Let me tell you about the time I almost died,” we hear the actor’s voice say in voiceover before we see anything, and the first image we get is of his desperate figure clawing his way through snowy woods, apparently lunging away from danger. We’re informed that what we’re about to see is a flashback which begins the night Detective John Hobbes pays a visit to the jail where Edgar Reese (Elias Koteas), the serial killer Hobbes captured, is about to be executed. Reese is oddly ebullient on the cusp of death, singing “Time is on My Side” and making lots of cryptic allusions and speaking an incomprehensible language. We come to understand that Reese has been the repository for Azazel, a satanic spirit that leaps across bodies – one way we know this happens is the character in question starts singing “Time is on My Side” – and wreaks havoc on Hobbes. There are a number of problems with the plausibility of this scenario (why doesn’t this spirit leap into Hobbes himself when he shakes hands with Reese at the start of the film? Why did it stay with Reese for so long when he must have touched so many other people?), and a key element of the plot rests on the somewhat arbitrary premise that Azazel cannot leap more than about a sixth of a mile between bodies. Hobbes sets up a situation where he will have a final confrontation with Azazel deep in the woods, so that when Hobbes kills his current host – his partner, the otherwise genial John Goodman – the devil will have nowhere to go, because Hobbes has poisoned Azazel’s only refuge: the detective himself. So when the movie climaxes back where it started, we realize that it’s Azazel, not Hobbes, who says “I want to tell you about the night I almost died,” the evil spirit trying to escape Hobbes’s body before it expires. In the end, Hobbes’s gambit is not entirely successful: a tabby cat circles the dying body and gives Azazel a new lease on life, allowing evil to resume its course on earth.
Recall Roger Ebert’s complaint about Washington in Fallen: he “doesn't internalize the evil.” In a way, this is the point of the movie – though his character cannot vanquish evil entirely, Hobbes nevertheless foils Satan’s attempt to steal his soul. It’s a weirdly optimistic message embedded in a fatalistic film. Ebert is right that it doesn’t really work in Fallen, but the essential optimism at the heart of Washington’s work, his confidence that with good faith between generations amid ongoing realities of oppression, time is on his side – and that we’re on the same one. It amounts to a vision of American history that’s difficult to resist because it just might be true. And to bring you cheer at the prospect that you’ll see him again.