Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Rising Son

Yeah, yeah yeah: Denzel Washington is an action hero, a sex symbol, and an African-American icon. His body of work also suggests that he's a man of faith

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.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Jim is on Spring Break. Part of his vacation plans consist of taking his kids to Colonial Williamsburg, an occupational hazard for children whose father is a history teacher. Jim his hoping to get Thomas Jefferson to confess that he's utterly exasperated with George Washington (he was too diplomatic last time) and for Patrick Henry to express unvarnished class resentment (shouldn't be too hard). Both are pictured above. Don't be fooled: the two don't much like each other.

Jim's current reading is the rollicking Charlie Wilson's War, the 2003 book by CBS producer George Crile that became the basis of the 2007 movie about a Texas congressman who almost single-handedly redirected the U.S. government to aid Afghan rebels in their successful war against the Soviet Union in the 1980s -- but also laid the groundwork for 9/11 a dozen years later. This reading is part of current research on Tom Hanks (star of the movie), but also for background reading that may aid teaching for "U.S. Since 1940" and civics courses.

Slated hotel reading will be Jennifer Egan's latest novel, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which is reputedly a well-crafted and highly accessible postmodern novel about the members of a rock band and their lives over time. There may be more to say about that one at some point.

Take care -- really: take care -- Spring Breakers. And to all a good night.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Combative morality

In Moral Combat: Good and Evil in World War II, Michael Burleigh widens his scope -- and takes a few potshots

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

There's probably nobody alive today who knows more about the rise and fall of the Third Reich than Michael Burleigh. His 2001 book The Third Reich was a landmark history, one notable in describing Nazism as a kind of religious experience. In the years since, he has explored similar currents in the history of other regimes and among terrorists. In his new book, he returns to his original grounding in the Second World War, and widens his scope beyond Germany, and indeed beyond Europe.

Much of Moral Combat is fascinating. Burleigh is particularly good at teasing out the nuances and dilemmas in the choices of people forced to dwell in collaborationist states like France and Denmark. And his regrettably brief chapter on resistance fighters -- regrettable because it leaves one wanting more, but also, as Burleigh makes clear, because such people were lamentably rare -- is superb.

But for all scope and unquestioned value, this is a flawed and distended book. And one whose vices seem to grow out of editorial arrogance.

The biggest, and immediately apparent, problem is the lack of a conceptual infrastructure through which to guide a reader through Burleigh's 500+ page narrative. He's clear at the outset that this is not meant to be a work of philosophy, and that the volume is meant to offer a moral map, not a moral compass. Fine. But how about at least offering a working definition of the word "moral?" How does he understand its relationship to religion or ethics? Is there a distinction to be made between individual or collective morality? Given the different value systems between Eastern and Western societies, does morality transcend cultures? Without such coordinates, it's easy to get lost, even when the map is richly detailed as this one is.

One suspects that Burleigh would react to such criticism with impatience. That's because there's a truculent subtext in the book, a desire to settle scores -- as in sneering references to "moral relativists" -- that is at best distracting and at worst alienating. For example, in his attempt emphasize the degree to which Stalin's USSR was at least as evil as Hitler's Germany, he writes that for Communist propagandists, "the concepts of good and evil were replaced by 'liquidation' and 'expropriation,' words that petit-bourgeois apologists continue to use, to show how progressive they are." Or that French resistance fighters often began their work with "statements of principle and right conduct under German occupation that would appall a modern moral relativist." Really? Could he give an example of such a principle, and a person who would be appalled? Are such people actually dominating the contemporary discourse of resistance? The intelligent but general reader that is presumably the audience for a book published by a trade house might well like to know.

Burleigh doesn't only take such sideswipes at the academic left. Though he is often impressively passionate in his moral fervor both in anatomizing and denouncing the Final Solution,  he can come off as snarky in referring to others with a stake in the matter. So, for example, in talking about the horrific death rate of non-Jewish Russians, he writes that those who were taken prisoner "were largely doomed as a matter of policy, with scarcely any of the kind of attention that has been, enormously, devoted to the Holocaust." It's a good point. But in this context, the word "enormously," set off in commas, comes off as a gratuitous potshot. Did he really need to add it, to imply that too much attention has been devoted to the Holocaust? I don't think Burleigh means to suggest this. But I do think that his writing sometimes lacks -- dare I say? -- the kind of moral discipline one would like in dealing with such sensitive subjects without distinctions that can sound invidious.

Moral Combat lacks discipline in other ways, too. It's too long -- an assertion rooted in the observation that many of the topics Burleigh deals with, particularly on the Eastern Front, were traced in some detail in The Third Reich.  The book also seems imbalanced. It is perhaps understandable that a British writer would spend a lot of time looking at England in general and Winston Churchill in particular (about whom Burleigh is notably approving), particularly since Britain was in the war for years before the United States formally joined the struggle. And Burleigh is quite good in looking his description and analysis of the U.S. Air Force firebombings of Germany and Japan and the sequence of events leading up to the decision to drop the atomic bomb.  But anyone looking for an assessment of the moral character of the G.I., an evaluation of how U.S. race relations did or didn't compromise aims, or comparisons between figures Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, or George Patton are likely to be disappointed. Burleigh has virtually nothing to say, one way or the other, about Japanese internment. Or, for that matter, the Bataan death march.

If you're willing to take Burleigh on his terms, and listen to him talk about what he wants to talk about, you're going to learn a lot, whether or not you agree with him, and that surely counts for something. But it's hard not to finish this book feeling like it could have been better.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Daddy's Girls

In a great many movies, Denzel Washington plays the role of surrogate father. But not all his children are sons

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

The overall tenor of Washington’s approach to fatherhood has been in terms of sons, but there have also been biological daughters who figure into picture (e.g. an infant in Philadelphia, little girls in Remember the Titans, and grown daughters in Unstoppable). One of the more interesting dimensions of his trajectory as an actor in recent decades has been his role as a surrogate father to women. As we’ve seen, interracial sexual relationships have been something of a taboo for him. But some of his most satisfying work has come out of working with females in other capacities.
The first important example of this, albeit indirect, is Courage Under Fire (1996).  In the movie Washington plays Lt. Col. Nathaniel Serling, a tank battalion commander involved in a friendly-fire incident during the Persian Gulf War, which we see in the opening sequence of the film. To avoid embarrassment, the Army covers up the incident, decorating Serling for his valor (real enough) but relegating him to a desk job back in Washington. He is assigned the task of investigating whether Army Captain Karen Emma Walden (Meg Ryan), who was killed in action, is eligible to be first woman to ever win the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor in combat. The White House is eager for political reasons to grant the medal, but Serling discovers fishy inconsistencies in the stories of Walden’s peers, which are rendered in Roshomon-like flashbacks. Suffice it to say that the story proves to be more complicated than it appears. For Serling, whose relationship with his wife and children have suffered since his return, the Walden case increasingly becomes part of a redemptive quest for truth about his own past no less than that of Walden, whom he has never met. In setting her record straight, he can set himself free no less than her grieving parents and daughter.
 A much more direct example of surrogacy is provided by Man on Fire. In some respects, this film, one of five Washington has done with director Tony Scott, is a mediocre movie. Set in Mexico amid the violent kidnappings of wealthy people for ransom, Man on Fire typifies Scott’s visually stylized, violent approach to moviemaking. It’s also a movie I regard as racist; the clear implication in the movie is that it takes a Yanqui (in what might be meant as a form of progress, a black Yanqui) to exact justice Mexicans are unable to achieve themselves. This is a trope in cinematic history that goes back a long way, at least as far as The Magnificent Seven (1960) a half-century ago. That said, Washington does some of the best acting of his career, a good chunk of it ad-libbed, with nine year-old Dakota Fanning, who plays the child in a family for whom Washington, a washed-up, alcoholic CIA agent, has been hired to serve as bodyguard. In a narrative arc you can spot a mile away, Washington starts out as the stony hired gun whose heart gets melted by a little girl. But the chemistry between the two is undeniable, and, by the time the movie ends, entirely believable. (I’ll have more to say about this momentarily.)
 A similar example of Washington finding compelling fatherly rapport with a female character in a subpar movie is The Bone Collector (1999). Here he plays Lincoln Rhyme, a forensics expert injured in an accident and rendered paralyzed. Depressed to the point of suicide, he is called asked to assist in the pursuit of a serial killer, which he does from the hospital bed in his New York apartment (the convoluted plot is one of the film’s weaknesses). Along the way, he develops a professional relationship – and, increasingly, a personal investment – in a young police officer played by Angelina Jolie. Naturally, she’s confronted by hostility by her allies and the danger posed by her quarry, and, naturally, she’s able to overcome such hurdles with Washington’s aid. And, naturally, she coaxes him back from an emotional cliff and sets him on the road to psychological healing.
A Washington character performs similar work in The Book of Eli. When Eli arrives in a town run by a local warlord played by Gary Oldman, Oldman initially courts him by sending a young minion (Mila Kunis) to seduce him. Eli rejects her advances – and rejects her efforts to join him as he strives to complete his mission to deliver a bible to a California community. But she wears him down and the two form a durable bond that will outlast Eli’s death.
As he moved into the 21st century, Washington’s capacity and believability as a mentor to black males and white females began to extend to white men as well. One move in this direction was his performance as Major Bennett Marco, the superior officer of Raymond Prentiss Shaw (Liev Schreiber) in Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 political thriller The Manchurian Candidate. The remake cleverly repositions a Cold War tale as one of corporate corruption, leaving in place its science-fiction elements of mind-control and the juicy role of a castrating mother (Angela Lansbury last time; Meryl Streep this time). For our purposes what matters is the convincing chemistry between Washington’s and Schreiber’s characters in one of those cases where we’re meant to, and can, see them in a colorblind fashion. One reason we can is that the point-of-view in the 2004 is much more oriented around Marco than the original, which works because Washington is an instinctively appealing figure.
Indeed, by the second decade of the century, Washington, now a middle-aged man, was no longer the obvious stuff of teenage fantasy he had been in the 1980s and 90s. But his literal heft was accompanied by an artistic one. In particular, he was now able to play a working-class character – as he does in the role of a train conductor in Unstoppable – with a sense of unselfconscious security that might have once been difficult for him. He simultaneously plays the role of seasoned veteran to the rookie played by Chris Pine, their gruff hostility sanded down into mutual respect amid their ordeal in grappling with a runaway train. At a time when “working-class” was often considered synonymous with “white,” and a year marked by a surprising absence of strong black characters in the movie, Washington occupied an important place on the nation’s cultural landscape as a father-figure. 
In recent years, Washington has begun citing Clint Eastwood as a role model for where he wishes to go in his career,  and one can indeed see him acting and directing movies for a long time to come. Eastwood is also an interesting parallel for Washington, because, as we’ve seen, he also evolved into a father figure over the course of his career. There are, I think, two important differences, however. One is that Eastwood surrogate families have a more jagged, self-consciously alternative quality to them than Washington’s – he’s always played more of an outsider, even considering the racial marginalization endemic to American life. The other is that there has always been a more obvious and comfortable spiritual dimension suffusing Washington’s work, another father who has loomed over his career. It’s to that Father that we will now turn.

Coming soon: God and Denzel Washington

Monday, March 14, 2011

Father Figures

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.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rising in the West

In Lighting Out for the Territory: How Samuel Clemens Became Mark Twain, Roy Morris, Jr. provides a lively chronicle of the early years of an American legend

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

Most of us understand Mark Twain as a Western writer -- whether "West" is defined in terms of his Missouri provenance (certainly the frontier at the time of his birth in 1835) or his crucial sojourn in the mining camps of Nevada or saloons of San Francisco. Twain chronicled this phase of his life in Roughing It (1872), a rollicking account that remains readable almost a century and a half later. But given the heft of that book, its avowedly questionable reliability, and the relatively thin biographical record of this period relative to the rest of Twain's life, there is a lacunae that popular historian Roy Morris, Jr. has filled in this brief, entertaining volume, just issued in paperback as part of Simon & Schuster's shrewdly packaged "America Collection."

As one might expect, Roughing It, which chronicles the six years following Twain's departure for Nevada in 1861, remains the core of Lighting Out for the Territory, whose title alludes to the end of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885). But Morris deftly packs a lot of context around it. This includes other Twain writings, like his letters, autobiography, and newspaper reportage, as well as accounts, both contemporary to his time and contemporary to ours, of people who had similar experiences as he did or who have their own angles of vision on the stories he tells (like irritated rivals at competing publications). Morris quotes liberally from Twain himself -- the humor continues to leap of the page and make you laugh -- as well as provides analysis of his deadpan lecture style and the narrative strategy of his short story "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," Twain's first big literary hit.

In the popular imagination, the frontier west is typically viewed as a post-Civil War phenomenon, though recent scholarship by historians like Elliot West have emphasized the degree to which the core dynamics of the trans-Mississippi empire were in motion by the 1840s. They're certainly on vivid display here, whether in terms of Morris's description of Nevada's governance under his brother Orion, Lincoln-appointed de facto governor of the territory in the early 1860s, or the scene of the mining camps where Twain worked so hard to avoid exerting himself. As is well known, Twain was a vocal opponent of empire in the early twentieth century. But he noted imperialist currents that were already apparent in a journey the Hawaiian islands he took before coming back east in 1867.

One of the more striking dimensions to this story is that so much of it takes place against the backdrop of the Civil War. In one sense, the war is a world away -- or at least it seems to be once Twain escapes the truly wild (and, at times personally dangerous) scene in Missouri, where his steamboat piloting skills left him in danger of impressment by Union and Confederate armies. And yet even after he was well over a thousand miles away the conflict loomed large, whether in barroom brawls or journalistic fights that sometimes got Twain into trouble, as when he falsely claimed a rival paper had reneged on a donation to the U.S. Sanitary Commission. As far as his ideology and loyalty go, Twain comes across here as a plastic figure bent in a Unionist direction. But the ambiguity at the heart of his profile appears to be part and parcel of the artistic sensibility he would deploy to great effect in the coming decades.

One thing is for certain: by the time the 31 year-old Twain headed back to New York and then on to Europe for adventures that would lead to his breakthrough book, The Innocents Abroad (1869), he had a accumulated a lifetime's worth of experience. As he would learn and report over the course of his career, fortunes come and go. But Twain was wise enough to know that a good story is priceless. So is Morris.

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.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

E unum pluribus

In American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, Robert Putnam and David Campbell limn the soul of a nation

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

Harvard University political scientist Robert D. Putnam's 2000 book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community was one of those books -- like David Riesman's The Lonely Crowd (1950) or Daniel Bell's The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism (1976) -- that captured a zeitgeist. Its key concept of "social capital," and the thesis that it was in gradual decline, has defined academic discourse across a series of disciplines for over a decade now. Though it may now be a little dated (my students routinely argue, to my mind unconvincingly, that social networking is in effect a new and effective form of social capital), it will continue to serve as an artifact of turn-of-this-century American life.

Putnam's next two books, co-edited anthologies, deepened the inquiry into the issues he explored in Bowling Alone. But now he has teamed up with Notre Dame political scientist David E. Campbell to produce American Grace, a comprehensive look at the contemporary landscape of religion in U.S. life. Written in collaboration with other researchers, and based on two large-scale surveys in 2006 and 2007, it will likely serve as a widely cited landmark study for decades to come.

Loosely speaking, the argument of American Grace follows that of Bowling Alone. Just as the latter tracked civic engagement over the course of a lifetime and multiple generations, so too does American Grace chart -- literally, in a profusion of elegantly simple graphs -- religious engagement in U.S. society.  As with civic engagement, Putnam & Co. find both that religious commitment tends to intensify over the course of a lifetime, but that there has been a gradual but unmistakable ebbing of religiosity among the young. Because the young begin at a lower base line level, any rise in commitment later in life is not likely to catch up to where their elders are at the same stage of life. At the moment, this ebbing is not obvious or dramatic, because it is more than balanced out by older generations. But over time it will likely prove significant.

This demographic rhythm seems to transcend politics, though the authors make clear that social currents nevertheless shape its course. In particular, the cultural shocks of the 1960s -- specifically the sexual revolution and its concomitant developments -- have proved enormous. This "shock" was followed by an "aftershock" we have come to know as the evangelical revival of the 1970s and 80s, which lent a neoconservative cast to American religion, important exceptions like Black Protestants notwithstanding. This aftershock, in turn, was followed by the less obvious but important one of the rise of the "nones," religiously unaffiliated young Americans, whose orientation is in effect a backlash against the conservative backlash. The authors go to great pains to make clear that U.S. religion has never broken down along simple party lines, and does not now, either. But in important respects, this perception is important enough to comprise a partial reality of its own.

In any case -- and this is a key message of American Grace -- social divisions over religion in U.S. life are ultimately less important that its role as a crucial form of social glue. The authors marvel that a nation as religiously fractured as this one has not descended into sectarian strife. The reason they offer, one reminiscent of James Madison's argument in The Federalist #10, is that Americans seem to regard pluralism itself as a shared value. This belief has only been intensified by what the authors call "the Aunt Sally Principle" (the role of religious intermarriage in fostering ecumenical ties) and "the my Friend Al Principle" (the growing incidence of bridging social capital across sectarian lines). Moreover, they say, there are signs of ideological convergence on some of the most contentious issues in religious life. More and more of the faithful, for example, are moving leftward toward a more inclusive approach toward homosexuality, and rightward toward a more skeptical view of abortion rights (as indeed are some "nones"). Religious people tend to be less tolerant in some respects than secular ones, but also more generous with their time and treasure. The honest-broker tone of the book adds to its credibility, though their belief in the civic benefits of faith in public life is clear.

Which is why, notwithstanding the sunny tone of American Grace, it's hard not to be haunted by it. Like Frederick Jackson Turner hailing the value of the frontier even as he declares it closed, one can't help but wonder what will become of a nation whose social capital, religious and otherwise, is draining in tandem with its economic capital. The authors repeatedly make clear that sociological trends rarely move in a straight line, and any student of U.S. history is aware that periodic reawakenings are a staple of it. Maybe it's time to pray for a revival.