Friday, January 15, 2016

Black Roles Matter: Denzel Washington

Today, January 15, would have been the 87th birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. So it’s a special day, and one on which it seems appropriate to salute the contributions of African-Americans to the film industry. I’m writing this a few days in advance, so I don’t know what’s going to pop up in terms of Oscar nominations. Let’s hope we don’t see a repeat of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite Twitter meme. In light of the fact that the big 2015 snubs included one for David Oyelowo’s impressive portrayal of Dr. King himself in Selma, it’s fair to say that anything can happen.

Not that race is supposed to factor into a selection of the year’s best performances. (It would be pretty grotesque if we established a quota systems ensuring “fair” distribution of awards in terms of color.) But given the wealth of popular and critically acclaimed movies featuring Black actors that came out in 2015 (among them Creed, Concussion, Straight Outta Compton¸ and Beasts of No Nation), I’m hoping that at least one qualified Black actor or actress shows up on the list of acting nominees. Truthfully, a Black male nominee  is much more likely. Pity the poor Black actresses who haven’t seemed to have much in the way of interesting roles in the past year, except on television. (Taraji, you go, girl!) But I would personally vote for Samuel L. Jackson in just about anything, maybe including Snakes on a Plane.

The Golden Globe folks, those jolly members of the foreign press corps who always put on a wild and crazy TV broadcast, this year nominated in the motion picture categories two Black performers, Will Smith for Concussion and Idris Elba for his powerful supporting role in Beasts of No Nation. Neither won, but both were on the ballot. And the Foreign Press gave its annual Cecil B. DeMille Award to an African-American icon, Denzel Washington.

Washington, who made the leap to fame and fortune in the 1980s, has always been regarded as an heir apparent to the great Sidney Poitier. Poitier, of course, made his mark in the Fifties and Sixties. I’ll never forget my family’s excitement when in 1964 Poitier became the first African-American ever to win a Best Actor Oscar, for his charming role in Lilies of the Field. Then in 1967 he scored a rare Trifecta, releasing three films--To Sir, With Love; In the Heat of the Night, and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—that spoke earnestly to questions of race while making Poitier the world’s top box office star. Poitier was hugely respected, but his tragedy as an actor was that (understandably, in that turbulent era) he could never permit himself to play anything but heroic roles.

Denzel Washington, like Poitier, seems to be made for heroics, and many of his best parts take advantage of his natural nobility. He won his first Oscar in 1989 for his portrayal of an ex-slave who becomes a soldier in the Civil War drama, Glory. He played a mighty leader in Malcolm X, and a gutsy attorney defending a man with AIDS in Philadelphia. But his Best Actor Oscar came in 2002, for tackling a meaty role that Poitier would never have touched, that of a corrupt cop in Training Day. Ironically, on the same night that he won the statuette, Poitier himself received from the Academy an honorary award “for his extraordinary performances and unique presence on the screen and for representing the industry with dignity, style and intelligence.”

The same could be said about Denzel Washington, a man who does Hollywood proud.

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