Monday, February 28, 2011

Stepping Up

The following post is part of an ongoing series about Denzel Washington's vision of U.S. History, part of a larger project with the working title "Sensing the Past: Hollywood Actors as Historians."

Cinematically speaking, the first look we get at Denzel Washington is also the closest look we get at anything resembling a counterculture figure. In the 1981 movie Carbon Copy – starring George Segal, Susan Saint-James, Jack Warden, and “Introducing Denzel Washington” – he plays Roger Porter, a late adolescent who shows up at the Southern California corporate office of a wealthy white corporate executive named Walter Whitney (Segal) and declares he is the son of a woman with whom Whitney had an interracial tryst many years earlier. He is saddened to learn that the boy’s mother is now dead, but repelled by Porter, who arrives wearing dark glasses and a T-Shirt bearing an image of the African continent with a heart in the middle. “Nothing ratty-tatty about this place!” he declares, taking in the dark-wood paneled walls. “And that’s how it should be where the hog is fat. No meat scraps – we’re talking T-bone steaks!” (Black dialogue is only one of the script’s deficiencies.) The boy sits with his feat up at Whitney’s desk, making what could plausibly be deemed an ominous declaration: “Here I was thinking I was just another poor black orphan boy going to freeze in the cold white world.” Whitney asks about the boy’s father, and is told “You know how it is with us colored folks. We ain’t much for marryin.’” When Whitney objects to Porter talking about his own mother this way, Porter responds, “Of course not being married didn’t make my mother less of a woman. It just made my father less of a man.” Naturally, that father is Whitney himself.
            A good white liberal, Whitney tries to make room for the boy in his life, and this becomes the comic premise of what is now a dated movie. Whitney is trapped in a loveless marriage, his career dependent on his domineering father-in-law. Their gaudy racism sends his life into a downward spiral, one Porter only seems to exacerbate. At one point Whitney is appalled when, after wondering if his son is literate, the boy responds by inviting him to rub his kinky hair for good luck. Conversely, he’s appalled when he loses a bet in a pickup game because Porter has unexpectedly poor basketball skills. The two end up in a ghetto apartment, and when the police mistakenly believe Porter is involved in a robbery, Whitney hides him and tries to run away, getting arrested himself. Porter visits his father in jail, revealing his behavior to be a ruse. “I didn’t want anything from you,” he explains, saying the point was never to extract money or a trust fund. “I didn’t want you to like me because I was your son. I wanted you to respect me because I was Mom’s son. But I looked in your eyes and you didn’t see Mom. You saw black.” Whitney is released from jail, and as a result of new clarity in his life is freed from his wife and father-in-law’s clutches. He also learns that Roger is in fact a scholarship student at Northwestern, Whitney’s own alma mater. The two ride off into the sunset headed back to Chicago.
            One of the things that makes Carbon Copy weak movie is Washington’s performance. His well-scrubbed cheer compromises the credibility of his ghetto masquerade, and while this arguably the point – a father who can’t really see his son for who he is – his acting can’t quite escape the tinny quality of the movie around him. He is, for all his evident promise, miscast. That’s the thing about people with movie star quality: their identities transcend their roles. It’s hard to make Katherine Hepburn a housewife. Or Jack Nicholson a psychotherapist.
            This is surely one reason why in seventeen of his next twenty feature film roles, Washington plays some variety of a middle-class professional – police chief, journalist, naval officer, politico. There are exceptions (I’ll be getting to them momentarily), but such roles will be the general rule for the rest of his career. This is, to put it mildly, not a representative sample of U.S. society. That might not mean much in the case of a white actor. But in the case of a black one it amounts to a political statement about the arrival of African Americans in mainstream society. (Somewhere W.E.B. DuBois – the young DuBois, the one who still believed in racial integration and the pivotal leadership role of a “talented tenth” working on behalf of Negro people as a whole – is smiling. The later one who became a Communist: Not so much.) And although it’s not typically as clear as it is in the case of the scholarship boy of Carbon Copy, that arrival is typically understood to be recent. Washington’s characters are not black princes,  but rather black Horatio Algers.
            Washington’s message of integration is a multivalent one. In some cases, like the aforementioned one of Sidney Lumet rewriting a script to give Washington the part of an elegant political fixer who stalks and threatens the media consultant (Richard Gere) in Power, the black character’s presence is mean to be taken for granted. In others, it’s meant to send an overt message that times have changed. At one point in Alan J. Pakula’s The Pelican Brief, Washington plays a reporter who meets his boss (Donald Sutherland) at Mount Vernon (as in George Washington’s Mount Vernon). Sutherland’s character is annoyed with Washington’s because he’s been impossible to reach. “I thought of dropping you into the ranks of the unemployed,” he says wryly, “but I know damn well you’d slap me with a discrimination suit.” In still other cases, like Cry Freedom, Washington is an activist engaging in direct advocacy on explicitly racial terms. Yet for all the diversity of these integrationist arguments, they’re all conducted in a context of Washington portraying people with literal and figurative capital, whether measured in professional skills, patterns of consumption, social status, or family values. This is true even when a character’s hold on such status is precarious, as it is for the small business owner of Mississippi Masala. (Somewhere Marcus Garvey is smiling.)
            Though it may sound odd, I consider Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X as one of those seventeen middle-class roles. In an important sense, of course, that’s ridiculous: the fiery Civil Rights leader began his life as a criminal and became a convert to a religion specifically predicated on a rejection of many core tenets of American society. But Washington’s Malcolm is a surprisingly chaste figure. To be sure, he is portrayed as having a flamboyant youth, but Washington – who played an important role in developing the character with Spike Lee – pulls punches. Yes, their Malcolm takes drugs, but he isn’t seen dealing them, the way he was in real life. Nor is he seen as a pimp. His vices are in any case less important than his eventual conversion to Islamic piety, a journey he takes with a sense of discipline and intellectual rigor that would warm the heart of a chilly Puritan. And while his political activities inevitably meant he is absent from home much of the time, Malcolm as a family man is portrayed as positively Eisenhowerian. As one of the mysterious agents tapping his phone line observes to another while Malcolm chats with his wife, “this guy makes [Martin Luther] King look like a monk.”
            Of the three characters in Washington’s early career that cannot really be considered bourgeois, two are rank-and-file soldiers: the runaway slave Trip of Glory and Private Pete Peterson of A Soldier’s Story. As Washington made clear at the time of Glory’s release, he had repeatedly rejected roles of slaves, clearly mindful of what that would literally project to audiences. But it is evident that to a great extent Glory can be understood in terms of Trip’s struggle to overcome his own resistance to his evident leadership ability, ability evident even to the commanding (white) officer who has him whipped.  Petersen’s (black) commanding officer holds him in similarly high regard, but Petersen rejects him even more decisively than Trip does his in an ending that may well make Petersen as the most radical of all characters in Washington’s oeuvre. (Indeed, I’ll speculate that had the movie been made a few years later, when Washington’s persona was more firmly established and he had more control over it, he may well have ended up with the lead role of the officer who leads the murder investigation at the heart of the film, played by Harold Rollins, Jr.) The third exception to the pattern I’m describing is The Preacher’s Wife (1997): Here Washington is an angel. And yet in an important sense Washington’s angel is more professional than his predecessor. The Preacher’s Wife is a remake of the 1948 film The Bishop’s Wife. In that movie, it was Cary Grant playing the angel, one who, tempted by his attraction to the spouse of a man he’s trying to help, confesses, “I’m tired of being a wanderer.” Washington’s angel shows no such weakness.
Over the course of the last fifteen years, Washington’s palette has widened somewhat. He played convicts again in Spike Lee’s He Got Game (1998) and The Hurricane a year later, though in both cases the incarceration of the characters is questionable at best (in the former, it’s the result of an accident; in the latter, it’s a travesty, though, as with Malcolm X, the filmmakers of The Hurricane soft-pedal Ruben Carter’s previous criminal record). In John Q. (2002) Washington is a desperate laid-off factory worker who resorts to taking hostages at a hospital for the sake of his son’s medical care. Easy Rawlins, another laid-off character in the Los Angeles of the 1940s, descends into the city’s underworld as a private eye in Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), in large measure because he wants to keep up mortgage payments on the home whose ownership he cherishes. In important respects, all these characters have stout middle-class values most often expressed in the form of a steady work ethic. Even Frank Lucas, the ruthless criminal of American Gangster (2007), runs his heroin business with a stone-cold sobriety in sharp contrast to his peers like his real-life counterpart Nicky Barnes (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.).
The character of Lucas, whose behavior is in many respects monstrous, serves as an important reminder that sobriety is not the same thing as saintliness. Whatever their professional, personal, or material achievements, Washington characters are never paragons of virtue. His protagonists in Heart Condition (1990) and Philadelphia (1993) are slick attorneys. The military officer of Courage Under Fire (1996) and former CIA officer-turned-bodyguard of Man on Fire (2004) are alcoholics. The train dispatcher in the remake of the 1974 film The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009) is a decent family man with a notable cool head in dealing with the terrorist played by John Travolta, but over the course of that movie we learn he was demoted for taking a bribe.
Still, at the end of the day – exceptions that prove the rule like Training Day notwithstanding – Denzel Washington characters are upwardly mobile (black) Americans with a stake in a system that generally has room for them, even when that room is on the margins, and even when that room is bounded by opposition. Yet another real-life Washington character, poet and activist Melvin Tolson of The Great Debaters (2007), is a college professor who secretly advises an interracial group of populist farmers seeking to resist the imprecations of greedy capitalists. And even when American society as we know it is gone, another Washington figure, the title character of The Book of Eli (2009), roams a post-apocalyptic dystopia and battles would be autocrats like that played by Gary Oldman, serving as a vessel of civilization.  These are people who have fought long and hard to give their American Dreams a basis in reality. They’re not going to give it up without a fight.
And they’re not going to do it alone. Or for themselves alone.

 Next: Washington & Sons (and daughters).

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Up From Mount Vernon

Denzel Washington, by way of Booker T. Washington

The following is part of a series of posts about Denzel Wasington, part of a larger project on Hollywood Actors as Historians. --JC

Two facts about Denzel Washington seem worth mentioning at the outset: 1) He’s the son of a minister; and 2) His father was absent for much of his adolescence. It’s possible to make too much of these facts, but his career trajectory suggests they counts for something.
Washington was born on December 28, 1954, the second of three children. His mother, Lennis, a one-time gospel singer, hailed from Georgia but was raised in Harlem. His father, Denzel Sr., a Virginia native, was named after the obstetrician who delivered him, a Dr. Denzel.
Denzel Jr. was born, and spent his childhood, in Mount Vernon, New York. A small city in Westchester County situated between some of the meaner streets of the Bronx and the leafier lanes of Bronxville, Mount Vernon is a liminal space in metropolitan New York, and suggestive of what appears to have been a precariously middle-class youth in the interracial neighborhood of Fleetwood. Washington’s father worked for the city water department and at a local retail score; his status as a Pentecostal minister while living in Mount Vernon apparently more an aspiration than a career (his son remembers listening to congregations consisting of no more than a handful of people). Washington’s parents divorced when he was fourteen, and his father returned to Virginia, continuing his ministerial work until his death in 1991.
The pivotal figure in Washington’s life was his mother. A beautician who owned and operated a series of shops, her extroverted personality and entrepreneurial pluck were traits she passed on to her son.  In a brief autobiographical sketch published in 2006, Washington described the job his mother got for him at a local barbershop when he was 11 or 12:

The place was run by a man named Jack Coleman, who took me on as a kindness to my mother. At least that’s how I always look back on it. I thought it was the best job in the world. I had all kinds of hustles back then. You walked into the shop and I could tell right away how much money you had. I’d check out your shoes and I’d just know. I’d have people bringing me their dry cleaning and I’d take it out and deliver it back to their house. I’d run all kinds of errands. They’d step out of Mr. Coleman’s chair and I’d be on them with a whisk broom, brushing off their collars saying, ‘Man how you doin’ today?’ Or ‘Man, you look good.’ There was money to be made all day long, especially if you were respectful and solicitous.

Somewhere, Booker T. Washington was smiling. 
As Lennis Washington was quick to recognize, however, her divorce had a destabilizing effect on her son. He rejected his childhood piety – forbidden by his father to go to the movies, he sneaked out to see blaxploitation movies like Superfly (1972) – and began getting into fights. Though he had never been a particularly good student, she managed to get him admitted to New Windsor Oakland Academy, a school for largely affluent and white students in upstate New York. Washington’s primary interests in high school were athletic rather than artistic (he played football and basketball), though he did play piano in a rock band and experimented with acting at summer YMCA camps.
His grades, however, did not improve enough to gain him admission to Yale or substantial enough of a scholarship to attend Boston University, two schools he hoped to attend. Instead, he enrolled at Fordham University in 1972. He initially was pre-med, but his academic performance was so weak that he dropped out for a while. Working at a post office and as a sanitation worker led him to return. He refocused his academic career by majoring in journalism – and, after a successful stint doing theatrical work as a counselor at the YMCA camp he attended as a child, drama. Landing lead roles in a university productions of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones and Shakepeare’s Othello proved pivotal. It led him, while still an undergraduate, to a part in Wilma, a made-for-TV movie in which he portrayed the boyfriend of legendary track star Wilma Rudolph (played by Cicely Tyson). It was in making the movie that he met Paulette Pearson, the woman who would eventually become his wife.
Following his graduation from Fordham, Washington won a scholarship for graduate work at the American Conservatory Theater (ACT) in San Francisco. This was a three-year program for those who successfully made the cut for the second year, which he did. But Washington’s growing restlessness led him to strike out on his own in Los Angeles, where work was hard to find. He did manage to land a role in the 1981 film Carbon Copy, in which he played the long-lost black son of a white man (George Segal). But that film sank without a trace. So he returned to New York, and sought stage roles. In what proved to be a fruitful success, he portrayed Malcolm X in When Chickens Come Home to Roost, a 1981 off-Broadway production that caught the attention of many critics, as well as the aspiring Spike Lee, who nursed a lifelong ambition of making a biopic of Civil Rights leader. Another role that would lead to a movie part was Washington’s appearance in the original 1981 production of Charles Fuller’s A Soldier’s Play, which he would reprise in the 1984 Norman Jewison film A Soldier’s Story.
It was in television, however, that Washington would win the fame and financial security that he would leverage, like Clint Eastwood and Daniel Day-Lewis, into a movie career. As Dr. Philip Chandler in the long-running NBC series St. Elsewhere (1982-1988), Washington established a paradigmatic identity as an intelligent, accomplished, and imperfect professional. A recurrent character in an ensemble that included future stars Helen Hunt, Alfre Woodard, Mark Harmon and others, the show followed a set of doctors working at a beleaguered Boston hospital, and was one of the most successful dramas of the 1980s.
Washington was able to use time off from the show to squeeze in a few movies. In the 1984 TV production License to Kill, he played the supporting role a young prosecutor who needs all his wits in parrying a defense lawyer representing a drunk driver. In addition to Jewison’s (low-budget) film version of A Soldier’s Story, Washington also won a small but juicy role as a corrupt politico in Sidney Lumet’s Power (1986). That movie proved to be a commercial and critical disappointment. So was Cry Freedom, a 1987 Richard Attenborough film about white South African journalist Donald Woods (Kevin Kline) and his relationship with anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko (Washington). Though the movie was much criticized for its lopsided focus on the Woods rather than the more compelling Biko, Washington was repeatedly singled out for praise in a performance notable for his mastery of a South African accent.
By this point, he was a full-time screen actor. Washington made a pair of British projects that were not widely seen. In the maundering For Queen and Country (1988) he plays a veteran of the Falklands War who returns to his South London ghetto only to find that in the newly Thatcherite Great Britain, the St. Lucia-born soldier is no longer a British citizen. That same year he starred in the light-hearted The Mighty Quinn as a police chief on an unnamed Caribbean island – another nice job with an accent – who juggles corrupt politicians while trying to protect a childhood con-artist friend framed for a much more serious crime. 
But if Washington had made it as an actor by the end of the eighties, he had not yet broken through as a movie star, notwithstanding the praise of informed observers like Roger Ebert. The turning point came in 1989 with his work in yet another ensemble project, the Edward Zwick Civil War film Glory, based on the real-life exploits of the African-American Massachusetts 54th Regiment. For his performance as Trip, a misanthropic runaway slave, Washington received an Academy Award as Best Supporting Actor. From that point on, he would be a headliner.
But not an especially prominent one. While Washington would continue to generate critical praise with ambitious performances in movies like Mo’ Better Blues (1990) and Mississippi Masala (1992), these were still relatively small-scale productions. Conversely, his big-budget projects of the time, Heart Condition (1990) and Ricochet (1991), were widely considered critical and commercial flops. He did receive an Oscar nomination as Best Actor for Malcolm X (1992), a movie with real artistic (and, to a lesser degree, box-office) heft. But reviews were mixed in his next turn as Don Pedro in the Kenneth Branagh production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing (1993). As one Washington biographer has noted, “Washington was at a crossroads in his career. Each of his movies up to that point either had an all-African American cast or been a box office disappointment. Washington needed to star in movies that would get mass exposure among whites as well as blacks. Then he would cross over to being viewed simply as an actor, regardless of his race.”While this is not exactly true – Glory did not feature an all black cast, and, as we’ve seen, Washington had played roles that were not specifically written for African Americans – he had not quite managed to hit that sweet spot of racial integration without a sacrifice of racial identity.
Beginning in 1993, however, Washington appeared in a string of projects that did achieve this. Some of them, like Philadelphia, (1993) were hailed as great films. Others, like Crimson Tide (1995), were slickly made popcorn movies that sold buckets of tickets. Still others, like The Siege (1998), were controversial (in this case, for its portrayal of Muslims). And a few, like Devil in a Blue Dress (1995), were expensive box-office duds. But Washington gained the marquee status of people at the very top his profession, a stratosphere inhabited by stars like Julia Roberts, Tom Hanks, and Tom Cruise. And there’s some reason to think he will outlast all of them.
Of course, the primary point here is not to establish Washington’s place in the Hollywood pecking order. As with all my subjects, his success is primarily important in the way it has allowed him a relatively high degree of control over his artistic choices, and what those choices reveal about him. One thing they clearly reveal is that the boy in the barbershop never disappeared: over the course of the last thirty years Washington has demonstrated a remarkable work ethic as one of the most tireless actors in Hollywood, and one with a large appetite for making money (though that has never been an overriding concern). What they also show is the unique degree to which Washington has embodied the material hopes, fears, and values of a rising black middle class in the wake of the Civil Rights movement.  This is something that merits a closer look.

 Coming Soon: Washington as a professional playing professionals

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Washington's Heights

The following is the first in series of posts about Denzel Wasington, part of a larger project on Hollywood Actors as Historians. --JC
 Roger Ebert didn’t much like the 1998 movie Fallen. Nothing unusual about that; as the reigning dean in the dwindling ranks of movie reviewers – in these days of disappearing newspapers and proliferating blogs, everyone’s a critic – Ebert routinely, though always respectfully, expressed disappointment. What was somewhat more surprising was Ebert’s disappointment with Denzel Washington. Ebert was among the first to recognize Washington’s tremendous potential. Back in 1989, he praised Washington’s performance in the-now obscure movie The Mighty Quinn as “one of those roles that creates a movie star overnight.” Ebert went on to say that Washington acted in an effortless way that reminds me of Robert Mitchum, Michael Caine, or Sean Connery, “able to play a hero and yet not take himself too seriously.” He would go on to render similar praise many times in subsequent years, on two occasions stating that Washington movies had brought him to tears (and one of those occasions emphasizing how rarely this happens).
But Ebert was not moved by Fallen, a supernatural serial killer movie in which Washington plays Detective John Hobbes (that’s Hobbes as in Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher that argued that life was “nasty, brutish, and short”) who fights the satanic soul escaped from the body of a serial killer and now moves from person to person around him. Washington, Ebert wrote, “is convincing as a cop, but perhaps not the best choice for the role of Hobbes, which requires more of a noir personality. There's something essentially hopeful and sunny about Washington, and the best noir heroes encounter grim news as if they were expecting it. There should be, at the core of the protagonist in any noir story, guilt and shame, as if they feel they deserve their fate. Washington plays Hobbes more like a conventional hero, and doesn't internalize the evil.”

No one was more aware of this sunny perception of the actor than Washington himself, who took active steps to change it. His performance of a rogue cop in the 2001 movie Training Day won him an Academy Award as Best Actor, no doubt in part because Academy voters were aware of what an artistic stretch it was. In 2007, he gave a performance of decided moral ambiguity in American Gangster, embodying the role of the real life Frank Lucas, who ran a hugely successful business as a Harlem heroin importer before turning police informant. Ebert, respectful of both performances, was not enchanted with either of them. He thought Washington’s role in Training Day was so over-the-top in its villainy as to strain credulity.
Making allowances for Washington’s genuine achievements in such roles, and in Ebert’s capacity to recognize that an actor can grow or simply defy earlier characterizations, I still believe the critic’s characterization of “something essentially hopeful and sunny about Washington” rings true. Even when he plays tortured souls, like the fierce Malcolm X or defiant Hurricane Carter, an undeniable glow of charisma flickers close to the surface of these characters. Washington can’t entirely hide his likeability, and the attempt to do so only makes him more compelling.
And it’s this core disposition, much like Katherine Hepburn’s irrepressible intelligence, or Humphrey Bogart’s hard-boiled virtue, that can explain much of Washington’s durable appeal as a movie star. Which is incontestable: In the annual Field Harris Poll for America’s Favorite Movie Star, Washington placed in the top ten every year of this century (including three years in a row at #1 between 2006 and 2008). In 2003 he attained the rarified status of commanding a $20 million for a single picture to appear in as a small-town Florida police chief in Out of Time. Washington has appeared in 39 feature films in the thirty years since his debut in Carbon Copy in 1981, to speak nothing of television appearances or celebrated stage roles like leads in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 2005 or August Wilson’s Fences in 2010. To watch him be interviewed by Charlie Rose, which the generally reclusive star has done a number of times in the last decade, is to be struck by a tremendous magnetism that draws its paradoxical appeal from its very unpretentiousness.

There is the small matter that Washington happens to be a black man. There is a long – and troubling – history of American love affairs with a certain kind of genial, unchallenging black actor, like Bill “Mr. Bojangles” Robinson or Hattie McDaniel. The last great archetypal figure in this regard was Sidney Poitier, who struggled with an ambivalence about being a white person’s notion of an acceptable black person for much of his career. In some respects, Washington is a direct cinematic heir of Poitier’s; indeed it was Washington who presented Poitier with a lifetime achievement award at the 2002 Oscar ceremonies, the very night Washington himself took home a statuette for Training Day. (In something of a trifecta, Halle Berry also won an Oscar for her performance in Monster’s Ball.) “Forty years I've been chasing Sidney, they finally give it to me, what'd they do?” They give it to him the same night!” Washington joked in his acceptance speech. “I'll always be chasing you, Sidney. I'll always be following in your footsteps. There's nothing I would rather do, sir.”
And yet, as everyone understands, much of Washington’s success is understood in terms of the ways he's not Poitier, the way he doesn’t have to shoulder the burden of being a (saintly) black actor instead of a black actor. Early on in his career, the young Washington won a small part in the 1986 Sidney Lumet film Power that had originally been written for a middle-aged white man. Ever since, he has repeatedly taken roles that were either changed or not racially marked in the first place. Such choices important not only to him, but to a white America whose collective self-esteem rests on a notion of racial Progress.
And the same time, Washington also enjoys a high regard among African Americans on their own terms. The very term “Denzel” connotes a masculine brand.  “My man is smooth like Barry [White], and his voice got bass/A body like Arnold [Schwarzenegger] with a Denzel face,” goes the lyric of the 1993 hit song “Whatta Man” by the female hip-hop trio Salt-n-Pepa. In the 2010 book The Denzel Principle: Why Black Women Can’t Find Good Black Men, author jimi izrael laments the challenges of living up to a daunting archetype. And his appearance in four Spike Lee movies, most prominently Malcolm X (1992) gives Washington a kind of street cred he’s managed to maintain alongside his mass appeal.
But to return to my (actually, Roger Ebert’s) original point: the core of Washington’s appeal is his essential moderation. Actually, I’ll go a step further and say that to a great degree he is a conservative star for a conservative age. Certainly there have been alternatives; Washington’s fame has coincided with that of impressive peers like Don Cheadle and Delroy Lindo, whose appeal lies in their intimidating presence – and the ability to regard it at a safe distance on a screen. It’s striking to consider, for example, that Washington has never had an interracial romance with a white woman in any of his movies, though he did have one with an Indian woman in the 1992 film Mississippi Masala, directed by Mira Nair. Such a romance was written out of the 1995 film The Pelican Brief, based on a John Grisham novel in which the character was both white and sexually involved with the woman played by Julia Roberts. Washington himself has expressed unease about such roles, not wanting to do for the sake of doing so (he’s not fond of lovemaking scenes generally).
This sense of diffidence extends to racial issues off-screen as well. After making the observation that as a result of Hollywood sexism in the availability of roles, “Men get older while women get younger,” Charlie Rose pressed Washington about whether he thought race was a factor too. “It depends,” he said, deflecting the question in the direction of whether race mattered in the makeup of specific character. Washington does not deny the reality of racism even in his own life; he told the Today show he can still get in an elevator and have a woman grab her purse more tightly (“I want to take out my wallet and just tap her on the head and say, ‘Honey, don’t worry about it. I think I’ve got a couple more dollars than you,” he joked). But this literally became a noteworthy item worthy of reporting.
At one point early in the process of researching this chapter, I was going to call it “Affirmative Actor.” The idea was to capture Washington’s place in African American cultural history as a post-Civil Rights figure, as well as appealingly upbeat persona. As I got deeper into his body of work, however, I concluded that, conceptually speaking, “Affirmative Actor” doesn’t go far enough. In part, that’s because it misses this conservative strain I’m talking about, a conservatism that’s more social than political, and one that’s not specifically racial. For example, in marked contrast to many of his Hollywood peers, Washington is a devoted family man – he’s been married to the same woman for decades and has raised four children. This real-life role as a family man is actually a fairly useful lens through which to view his body of work.
More specifically, many of Washington’s roles circle around the relationship between fathers and sons, literal and figurative. History – African American history particularly, but U.S. history generally, -- is fundamentally a matter of generations and their relationship with each other. It informs Washington’s notion of progress, measured in terms of secular achievement, monetary and otherwise. It also shapes his notion of how social change is the result of honoring a bond of reciprocal responsibility between generations. Finally, and perhaps most decisively, Washington’s notion of fathers and sons has a powerful religious element grounded in a subtle but discernible spiritual life.
I have no sense that this father/son dynamic is an active, conscious choice. Indeed, compared with figures like Clint Eastwood and Daniel Day-Lewis, Washington is less deliberative, more spontaneous figure. So tracing these threads is more challenging, but still possible, and, I believe, worthwhile. Let’s work through each in turn.

Next: A biographical sketch.


Monday, February 14, 2011

Discordant 'Ballad'

The Ballad of Jack & Rose marks the end of the road in a Daniel Day-Lewis sextet of movies -- and the closing of the frontier in his version of American history

The following is the final post about Daniel Day-Lewis in a larger project about Hollywood actors as historians. Comments welcome on Facebook or

To date, Daniel Day-Lewis has not made a movie about the Great Depression. Or World War II. Or the Eisenhower era of the 1950s. There may be any number of reasons for that, and he may yet make a movie about one of those moments in American history. But I’m willing to bet that he’s passed on an opportunity to do so, because that’s what real movie stars do with their power: say no. Sculpting a career by choosing roles is what turns actors into movie stars.
Day-Lewis has not made a movie about the sixties, either (or a movie about the United States in the 1960s, anyway; in his most recent film, Nine, he plays an Italian film director modeled on Federico Fellini). But the legacy of the sixties – the counterculture, anyway; he’s had little to show in the way of Civil Rights, for instance – shadows the final character in his gallery, Jack Slavin, in his 2005 movie The Ballad of Jack & Rose, which is actually set in 1986. It’s not a pretty picture, in large measure because it shows us a frontier that is not only closed, but barren. 
As with The Crucible, this was a family enterprise. The Ballad of Jack & Rose was written and directed by Rebecca Miller, Arthur’s daughter. Day-Lewis was first offered the part before he met Miller, and turned it down. As a career move, I would say that changing his mind was a mistake: this is not a very good movie (perhaps not entirely coincidentally, it’s also the only one of Day-Lewis’s American sextology that isn’t based on a pre-existing source like a play or novel). But it is nevertheless a revealing one when juxtaposed against the rest of his work, and one that allows us to begin bringing the story of this chapter to a close.
One reason why is a piece of subtitled information we get at the start of the movie as to its setting: “an island off the east coast of the United States.”  (That I always think of it as an island off the coast of Maine may reflect the fact that the film was shot on Prince Edward Island.) Manhattan is also an island, and Bill the Butcher, like Day-Lewis’s character here, is fighting off the encroachments of the outside world (in this case a real estate developer played by Beau Bridges). But the house in which Slavin has virtually barricaded himself is essentially the opposite of a frontier. It’s a collapsing preserve. And it’s collapsing around its protagonist, who’s afflicted with a vague illness that we understand is not yet crippling but will be fatal.
Slavin is the quintessential environmentalist who loves trees and hates people. A Scottish immigrant who came to United States and became a citizen – “I fell in love with this country, or what I thought it was going to be come,” he explains at one point – using a family inheritance to buy a compound that was once a countercultural compound. But now, in the aftermath of his wife’s death, the homestead is inhabited only by himself and his teenage teenaged daughter, Rose (Camilla Belle), with whom he has a relationship that is dangerously close to incestuous.
In apparent recognition of his literal and figurative unhealthiness, Slavin invites what has been a casual girlfriend from the mainland (Catherine Keener) and her two sons Rodney and Thaddius (Ryan McDonald and Paul Dano, with whom Day-Lewis would team up again with There Will Be Blood) to come live with them. This proves to be a poor arrangement, because Rose resents Catherine and seeks revenge by throwing herself at the boys, one of whom (McDonald) is apparently gay and the other (Dano) is an exploitative lout. Slavin is progressively more enraged by Thaddius, and Rose convinces him to dump Catherine.  “I wish it could be just us like it was before,” she tells him after running away and hiding in one of the developer’s houses. “The happiest man in the whole world.”
Yet the very imbalance of this sentiment suggests the instability of their relationship, in which Rose repeatedly says that she plans to commit suicide once he dies.  Slavin literally buys off Catherine, and then provokes a confrontation with Bridges by destroying the McMansion in which he and Rose have spent a night waiting for her to clear out of his home. But when his growing emotional volatility swings toward resignation, the developer, whether out of compassion or caginess, refuses to exploit Slavin’s sudden willingess to be bought out himself. (The lack of clarity as to what we’re to make of this decency on the part of the ostensible bad guy, and the truly distasteful behavior of Slavin, is one source of the movie’s dissatisfying ambiguity.) In the end, Slavin dies a relatively tidy death, and Rose – to whom this story really belongs – turns their home into a funeral pyre. We see her in an epilogue two years later on a Vermont collective. In effect we’ve come full circle, back to the edge – the far western edge – of Puritan New England. The frontier has become a garden.

Coming next: a series of posts about Denzel Washington.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Marvelously granular 'Grit'

In True Grit, Charles Portis reminded his fellow Americans of what was good in the Western. It's worth being reminded again 

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

One of the many felicitous consequences of Joel and Ethan Coen's decision to remake the 1969 western True Grit is republication of the original Charles Portis novel. First published in 1968 amid the tumult of an angry era of change, True Grit was was a decidedly old-fashioned book. In the decades since, many writers and filmmakers have felt compelled to "reinvent" the Western, to make avowedly "revisionist" statements that correct the weaknesses and shortcomings of the genre, which in many cases were real enough. But True Grit is a compelling reminder of why it has long been so satisfying, and the pleasures it affords in its most classic iterations.

The story is simple enough. It opens in post-Reconstruction Arkansas, where 14-year old Mattie Ross has come to the city of Fort Smith to claim the body of her father, murdered by a hired hand named Tom Chaney. But Mattie is not content simply to resolve her father's affairs; she's determined to avenge the crime. So she hires a somewhat unscrupulous Federal Marshall named Rooster Cogburn to retrieve Chaney from Indian Territory because she believes Cogburn has the "grit" for he job. One complication takes the form of another marshal, a Texan named LaBeouf, who also wants Chaney. The two men agree to collaborate, only to encounter another complication: the implacable insistence by Mattie that she join them. And so it that a semi-comic odyssey begins, one in which we get our fair share of horses, guns, bad weather, snakes, and all the requisite elements that are the prerequisites for a successful Western.

Mattie Ross is one of the great creations of modern American literature. As Donna Tartt (herself the distinguished author of 1992 novel The Secret History -- why has that never been made into a movie?) points out in her incisive afterword in this edition of the novel, there's long been a tendency among cult fans of this novel to compare her to Huck Finn. But Mattie is a tougher and smarter kid than Huck was.
She's more solemn than Huck, but Portis is endlessly inventive in exploiting her solemnity for comic effect, even as he evokes the language and attitude of what in many ways is a lost world. Mattie narrates the story from the perspective of about a half-century later, occasionally making contemporary asides like this one:

Thank God for the Harrison narcotics law. Also the Volstead Act. I know Governor Smith is 'wet' but that is because of his race and religion and he is not personally accountable for that. I think his first loyalty to the country and not to 'the infallible Pope of Rome.' I am not afraid of Al Smith for a minute. He is a good Democrat and when he is elected I believe he will do he right thing if he is not bullied into an early grave as was done to Woodrow Wilson, the greatest Presbyterian gentleman of the age.

All the major characters in the novel are Southern, and Confederate in their sympathies. Cogburn was one of Quantrill's Raiders, the notorious outfit responsible for atrocities in the Lawrence Raid of 1863, though he himself seems to be a rogue with a heart of gold. Cogburn's past becomes a topic of heated discussion at one point, but Portis less interested in judging or defending these people than in capturing their attitudes as unselfconsciously as he can. As we see in their occasional interactions with African Americans or Indians, they are neither more or less racist than their contemporaries.

"People do not give it credence that a fourteen-year-old girl could leave home and go off in the wintertime to avenge her father's blood but it did not seem so strange then, although it did not happen every day," Mattie says in the opening line of the book. The magic of this novel is the way its compellingly strange language and narrator come to seem palpably real. It is the great achievement of True Grit that it evokes a moment in U.S. history in all its ordinary, extraordinary wonder.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Off-Key 'Hymn'

In Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, Amy Chua offers valuable lessons on how (not) to write -- or live

The following review was posted recently on the Books page of the History News Network site.

As a teacher and book reviewer, it's my default setting to try to find something positive to say about any writing I assess. Partly this is a matter of simple decency; partly it's an acknowledgment that writing is hard work for just about everybody. And partly it's a matter of credibility: any criticism I may offer of another's work should be rooted in a sense of fairness. But this strategy is not without psychic cost. I worry, as do most people whose job it is to assess the performance of others, about whether my standards are high enough, both in terms of praise having value and maintaining my own sense of self-respect as to what constitutes success.

It is in that context that I say Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is a remarkably bad book. It's clarifying to encounter such a thoughtlessly written and cynically published work, and useful to explain why.

Tiger Mother is a hybrid, straddling the memoir and self-help genres. The latter is boldly stated at the outset: "A lot of people wonder how Chinese parents raise such stereotypically successful kids," Chua says in her first sentence. "They wonder what these parents do to produce so many math whizzes and music prodigies, what it's like inside the family, and whether they could do it too. Well, I can tell them, because I've done it."

More decisively, however, the book is a memoir. It focuses on Chua's relationship with her daughters, in particular the power struggle that emerges with her youngest over Chua's musical ambitions for her. Along the way, she describes the death of her mother-in-law, her sister's struggle with cancer, and her conversion into a dog-lover. As one typically expects of the genre, a more decisive conversion experience takes the form of a new stance toward parenting at the end of the book, one marked by a willingness to reconsider deeply held cultural priorities.

The first way Tiger Mother is a bad book is that it's fake. Chua makes all the meta-narrative moves she's supposed to in reporting family conflicts, the wise counsel of husband and parents who disagree with her, et. al. She also professes that she's a changed woman at the end. Except that she isn't. By the end of the story, she's as obsessive as ever about her older daughter, and while she's accepted the fact that her younger daughter has other interests than playing the violin, she is, by her own confession, as meddlesome as ever. "See how undefensive and flexible I am?" she asks her child. "To succeed in this world, you always have to be willing to adapt. That's something I'm especially good at. You should learn from me."

Next sentence: "But I didn't really give up." I think we're supposed to chuckle at this.

Which brings us to another way in which this is a bad book: it fails in purported attempts to be funny. Chua explains at the outset that she wanted her older daughter "to be well-rounded and to have hobbies and activities. Not just any activity, like 'crafts,' which can lead nowhere  -- or even worse, playing the drums, which leads to drugs -- but rather a hobby that was meaningful and highly difficult and with the potential for depth and virtuosity." Regrettably, such ignorant crudity slides into elitist bigotry as well. At one point Chua excoriates her daughters for giggling at foreign names, indignantly telling them of the linguistic indignities she suffered as the child of Filipino immigrants of Chinese extraction to the United States. "Even in third grade, classmates made fun of me," she reports. "Do you know where those people are? They're janitors, that's where." This is precisely the kind of cosmopolitanism that creates Sarah Palin voters.

Chua is glib in other ways too. She uses the term "Chinese mother" to connote high-maintenance parenting, in contrast to the permissive "Western" approach. We're told at the start of the book that this is mere short-hand; she explains that Tom Brokaw (who provides a blurb for the book) had a working-class father who was really a Chinese mother. At other times, "Chinese" really means Asian, as in the Korean mother who was vanquished when Chua's daughter got a higher math score than her son on a timed multiplication test. ("Poor Yoon-Seok," Chua deadpans. "He went back to Korea with his family, but probably not because of the speed test.")

At still other times, "Chinese" really means Chinese, as when Chua laments that the people there, corrupted by American fast food, are getting fat too. It's striking to witness this kind of unvarnished stereotyping from anyone, much less an Ivy League law professor whose first book analyzed how free markets breed ethnic hatred. (See here for my review of her last book, Day of Empire.)

Finally, Chua is duplicitous in ways that subvert the contract between reader and writer. At one point during her recitation of her vigilant parenting regime, she casually drops the fact that she was at the same time holding down her her teaching job -- one can only wonder what her Yale colleagues make of her -- writing a book, and traveling regularly to international conferences. This raises real questions about how accurately she is describing her activities. Moreover, even though Chua is not, by some reckonings, technically Chinese herself, it's clear that she positions herself as an embodiment of a cultural tradition that she inherited from her own family and is determined to carry on with her daughters. So it's a little startling when, 90% of the way through her narrative, she confesses to withholding a fact that contradicts the assertions she repeatedly makes about the positive outcomes in parent-child relations that result from the "Chinese" approach. This is at best dishonest; at worst it's hypocrisy. And it leads one to wonder about her motives in writing the book, which seem to amount to a form of sensational exhibitionism that Penguin Books was all too ready to exploit for the wave of publicity that has resulted.

The American half of the title of this book refers to a song written by Julia Ward Howe -- a tiger mother if ever there was one (among other maternal accomplishments, Howe was the mother of Mother's Day). The battle of Howe's "Battle Hymn of the Republic" referred the struggle to end slavery; the "hymn" suggests the way this quest was rooted in a deeply moral vision beyond narrowly defined (materialist) family values. This vision is emphatically absent in Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. We would do well to note Chua's utter blindness in this regard when we consider what good parenting might mean, wherever in the world we happen to be.