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Photo of Training Day,  Denzel Washingtonphoto of Inside Man,  Denzel Washington, Spike Lee photo of Deja Vu,  Denzel Washington
From top left to right: Denzel Washington at the Toronto Film Festival in 2002; as Frank Lucas in "American Gangster", on the set of Spike Lee's "Inside Man" with the film's director in 2005; bottom left to right: as Ben Marco in Jonathan Demme's "The Manchurian Candidate" in 2004; in the new release "The Great Debaters", in which he directed and starred; and in Tony Scott's 2006 film "Deja Vu".
 
Denzel Washington Keeps Moving

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

January 1, 2008

 
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"The loudest one in the room is the weakest one in the room.  I told you that."

The force of this line is being emphasized by its speaker, Denzel Washington, who is neither loud nor weak as Frank Lucas in Ridley Scott's "American Gangster", the epic hit drama on the real-life former Harlem drug kingpin of the 1970's.  Lucas's big screen portrayer, Washington, who turned 53 on December 28, had a good 2007 on the big screen, closing out the year with "The Great Debaters", a film inspired by the true tale of the all-black Wiley College debate team in East Texas that went undefeated in the mid-1930's.  "Debaters" is the second film that he has directed, with his first, "Antwone Fisher" coming five years ago.  Both films tell of young black men or women who struggle to find themselves and gain strength and inspiration from the journeys that a tough life has thrown at them.

In "The Great Debaters", which also stars Academy Award winner Forest Whitaker, three members of Wiley's debate team experience the harsh indignities and dangers that American racism has to offer from Southern whites who wanted blacks to remain subservient, even as many blacks in the South and elsewhere owned homes and land and businesses and were self-educated and progressing in American society very nicely.  The director offers glimpses of middle-class black life in his latest film, which has already hit the ground running early on at the box office in the U.S. and Canada.  Released by The Weinstein Company, the film is a moving and uplifting look at the growth of people who kept working hard and believing in the power of their voices to help effectuate change.

Vocal power, or at least vocal presence, was something that Harvey Weinstein, the co-president of The Weinstein Company, and an executive producer on Mr. Washington's film, felt that "The Great Debaters" needed.  Mr. Weinstein's theory was that to gain the widest possible audience, the director himself would have to star in the film, which last month was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture Drama. 

Starring in the film was an idea that Denzel Washington resisted, according to Weinstein, who was quoted in Variety Magazine as saying to the executive, "why don't you talk to my mom?"  The former co-owner and president of Miramax Films, who in Hollywood is known for his aggressive approach to producing and greenlighting films, said that he spoke to the two-time Oscar winner's mother, telling Mrs. Washington that her son "has got to play Tolson."  (Mel Tolson, an English professor at Wiley and rumored communist and organizer of unions by night.)  Then an accord was struck, and Messrs. Weinstein and Washington met in the middle.  The director needed more money to make "The Great Debaters", and Weinstein gave him $4 million.  Washington acted in "Debaters" for free.
 

While compromise was reached between director and producer, "Debaters" itself compromises little in terms of its time and place.  In some quarters, "Debaters" has been criticized by some for being too standard.  However, it is a story whose heralded debate team's final opponent was changed by its screenwriter Robert Eisele.  Before one could say "hey presto!", the University of Southern California (USC) became Harvard.  Todd Black, who produced "Antwone Fisher" with Mr. Washington, and was one of the producers of "Debaters", said in the film's production notes that no documentary evidence could be found to show that Wiley ever debated Harvard.  "Nonetheless, we felt for our story Harvard best embodied Wiley's incredible achievement . . . [i]n that era, there was much at stake when a black college debated any white school, particularly one with the stature of Harvard," Black said.  Jurnee Smollett, of "Eve's Bayou", Denzel Whitaker (who appeared with the director in "Training Day" but is neither relation to he nor Forest Whitaker) and Nate Parker are the principal debaters in the film, which is also produced by Oprah Winfrey.

 
In December 2007: Denzel Washington with "Debaters" co-stars Nate Parker, Jurnee Smollett and Denzel Whitaker at the film's Los Angeles premiere; in "The Great Debaters" with fellow Oscar-winner Forest Whitaker, who himself has directed before, with "Waiting To Exhale".


Denzel Washington gives praise to his collaborators on "Debaters", and when reading the film's production notes one can sense that making the film wasn't easy, but directing it may have been a little easier for the actor in his sophomore try.  "A lot of the team that was here for this film was on my first movie, "Antwone Fisher".  Phillippe Rousselot, a brilliant cinematographer, Willie Burton, a two-time Academy Award-winning sound mixer, Sharen Davis, a good friend and one of the top costume designers in the business and my producing partner Todd Black, whom I wouldn't have made the movie without."  The esteemed actor also threw kudos the way of David Bomba, calling him "a brilliant production designer."

Denzel Henry Washington, the actor born in Mount Vernon, New York, less than an hour north of New York City, was once told by a seer, or schoolteacher or great aunt that in the future he was going to say something very important to people all over the world.  In an interview on "60 Minutes" in 2003 he said that he thought the person who made that prediction was crazy.  Time has proven him wrong.  For 30 years, Washington has been on stage, screen and television.  Starting as Dr. Philip Chandler in the television series "St. Elsewhere" in 1982 (a six-year stint) he made a very good impression, and the year before he made his debut on the big screen in a forgettable comedy called "Carbon Copy", he also played Malcolm X in the Off-Broadway play "When The Chickens Come Home To Roost".  Stage has been Mr. Washington's friend several times in his career, as he played in the theater production "A Soldier's Play", and reprised his role in that play in the big screen film directed by Norman Jewison called "A Soldier's Story".  (Mr. Washington would team up again with Mr. Jewison in the 1999 film "The Hurricane", the actor's fourth Oscar nomination, one many thought should have been rewarded with another statuette on his mantle.)

While Denzel Washington keeps moving on, like any other actor he has had his stutter steps on the big screen, namely comedies like "Critical Condition" with Bob Hoskins, about a white man whose racist heart is implanted into Mr. Washington's police officer character, and "The Preacher's Wife", alongside Whitney Houston, and in the sci-fi drama "Virtuosity" with Russell Crowe.  Some of Washington's best performances have come in films that have been rarely seen, like Steven Biko, the South African anti-apartheid activist in "Cry Freedom", for which he was Oscar-nominated in the late 1980's, as the war veteran Rubin in the British film "For Queen And Country" in 1988, and as John in the HMO medical drama "John Q" (2002).   Many often cite his performance as human rights leader Malcolm X in Spike Lee's epic "Malcolm X" (1992) as the film for which he should have won his second Oscar (after winning his first Oscar for playing Trip, a rebel in the film "Glory", in 1990), but in 1993 he lost out to Al Pacino ("Scent Of A Woman".)  Mr. Washington's sister Lorice, an evangelist and holistic medicine dietician, has said that her younger brother didn't mind losing to Mr. Pacino.  If the sentiments about his performance and not winning Oscar in Mr. Lee's film has ever troubled Mr. Washington, he has never shown it.  During various interviews on the subject he has repeatedly said that he doesn't think about it, or declares that it happened a long time ago.  (Mr. Washington got his sister's name mentioned in the 1993 film "Philadelphia" after approaching Jonathan Demme and requesting to alter a line in the script for his attorney character Joe Miller to instead say of his new born baby: "Her name's Lorice.  I named her after my sister."  Demme's film also proved to be a wider family affair for the Washingtons, as Pauletta Pearson, the actress, singer, songwriter, musician and wife of Mr. Washington recorded a song for its motion picture soundtrack entitled, "It's In Your Eyes".) 

Contrary to popular opinion, Washington has played numerous characters who have been on the wrong side of good, in Mr. Lee's films "Mo' Better Blues" (1990) and "He Got Game" (1998), Greg Hoblit's "Fallen" (1998), Carl Franklin's "Out Of Time" (2003), Tony Scott's "Man On Fire" (2004), Ridley Scott's "American Gangster" (2007), and most notably in Antoine Fuqua's "Training Day" (2001) for which he won his second Oscar, playing a complex rogue narcotics L.A.P.D. detective who teaches a lesson to Ethan Hawke.  Washington made comments during his Oscar acceptance speech in 2002 about history reflecting that "tonight, on this night, I am recognized as the best actor in the world," or words to that effect.  One can wonder whether this was a subtle jab at the Academy for failing to recognize him on prior occasions, but Washington appeared onstage generally proud of the moment of triumph, and not bitter at the Academy in any way.  (On that night, Halle Berry had won for her lead role in the controversial "Monster's Ball" and Sidney Poitier had been honored with a lifetime achievement award.) 

But even with his performance as Frank Lucas in "American Gangster" it is possible on January 22 (just three weeks from the date of this story) that Mr. Washington may actually not be nominated for the role, in what has been a highly competitive year for lead acting (Daniel Day-Lewis for "There Will Be Blood", Frank Langella for "Starting Out In The Evening", George Clooney for "Michael Clayton", Johnny Depp for "Sweeney Todd", Tom Hanks for "Charlie Wilson's War", Javier Bardem for "No Country For Old Men", Tommy Lee Jones for "In The Valley of Elah", James McAvoy for "Atonement", John Cusack for "Grace Is Gone", Russell Crowe for "3:10 To Yuma", Will Smith for "I Am Legend", Emile Hirsch for "Into The Wild", Christian Bale for "Rescue Dawn", Viggo Mortensen for "Eastern Promises" and Don Cheadle for "Talk To Me", among others.)

  Photo of Miracle, ESPY Awards,  Tom Cruise, Denzel Washington
Denzel Washington and Will Smith flank Halle Berry at the 2002 Oscar Nominees Luncheon in Beverly Hills; with Tom Cruise at the 2004 ESPY Awards.  (Photos courtesy: WireImage)

Mr. Washington is a family man, eschewing the bright lights of Hollywood after-parties and celebrity circuits to be with his wife and family.  His son John David plays for the National Football League's St. Louis Rams team.  At a gathering in Harlem in 2002 to celebrate the DVD release of the tenth anniversary of "Malcolm X", a gathering that included Wesley Snipes and Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, the thespian admitted that he prefers New York to the surreal aspects of Los Angeles, and always longed to be back in New York to spend time with his family, which includes twins Malcolm and Olivia, born in 1991.  Malcolm was named after the human rights leader Malcolm X. 

He wrote a book in 2006 called A Hand To Guide Me, in which he acknowledged and celebrated the significant and not-so significant people in everyday public and private life that do the little things to help countless others along in life, sometimes unheralded for their efforts.  While Washington has written about inspiring mentors, he has been cited by numerous actors as a mentor or an idol, including Jamie Foxx (who said that he was told by Washington to walk upright positively and stay focused in his acting), Will Smith, Don Cheadle (whom he starred with in "Devil In A Blue Dress"), Josh Brolin ("American Gangster" co-star) and Washington's three young co-stars on "The Great Debaters", who he in effect passes a torch to in the film.  "He was very generous with his acting knowledge," said "Debaters" star Denzel Whitaker, in an interview with The Popcorn Reel last month.

The last two years have been busy for Washington.  He was on the set of "Inside Man" in 2005, while also squeezing in time to play Shakespearean traitor Brutus in "Julius Caesar" for a two month-run on Broadway during the summer of that year.  On weekends of the play, if not on every single night of the play's run in New York, Mr. Washington would patiently and graciously sign autographs for over 300 audience members people for at least two hours following each performance. 

Though the world has seen Denzel Washington perform on its stage for three decades and he gives generously of his time to autograph-seeking fans who may cross his path, it is not a secret that he isn't too fond of doing publicity.  He admits as much in one quote found on imdb.com:  "I'm an actor, so that's the bottom line.  I'm not a marketing whatever.  My strength does not lie in marketing a product called 'Denzel.'  That's not what I do.  My strength lies in playing a part and hopefully entertaining and affecting people on some level.  Now I'm not being naive.  I know that marketing comes into play when you're spending 50 or 60 million dollars of other people's money to make a film.  You have to be involved in marketing that product.  But the publicity gets to be boring.  How many times can I tell the same story?  I understand the importance of doing publicity for a film, so I'm willing to do that, but I don't want to sit around talking about myself.  That's not a great day for me.  That's not my idea of fun." 

As for family and his wife Pauletta he has also said (back in 1998): "She puts up with me.  I think, also, in a way the traveling helps.  We're able to travel together and also be apart sometimes.  Not everybody gets to live like that.  Twenty years now.  It's like you start to pat yourself on the back when you look around you and you see that very few people have 20 years into a marriage."  On his acting and the mysteries of the craft he has said: "I think it ruins movies when you know everything about how the movie was made and put together.  If you explain, it's like showing you the trick before I show you the magic.  Let me explain to you how it works.  All right, now come see the show.  It's supposed to be magic.  And being an actor is about creating that magic."  Tom Hanks, who won the first of two lead actor Oscars in 1994, beginning with his role as an gay lawyer infected with HIV-AIDS in "Philadelphia", has been quoted as saying that working with Washington on that film was "like going to film school", adding that he "learned more about acting from watching Denzel than from anyone else."   

 
In December 2007: Denzel Washington with his number one fan, his wife of 30 years, actress, singer, musician and writer Pauletta Pearson at "The Great Debaters" New York City premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater; in 1992 in Spike Lee's "Malcolm X": experiencing the Malcolm moment, in a performance many believe should have brought the actor his second Oscar.

Speaking of magic, Washington has cited the experience of preparing to do the whipping scene in Edward Zwick's "Glory" as a moment of spiritual visitation and consultation.  "And then I prayed to all the spirits.  I said, 'Look fellas, ladies,' and I'm talking about those who have been, and I said, 'Look I don't know, I'm just rolling with you all.  Just whatever happens, I'm going.  And I said are you with me?  Come on!'  I'm serious!  And I went out there and what hit me was, I'm in charge.  Never put my head down.  This isn't the first time this has happened to me the character - and in fact I had the guy build all the scars to put on my back - and I went out there with an attitude that I'm going to take this and not fold.  But it hurt.  And the tear was actually real.  You know, you just allow it and you're thankful for it.  It's not technical.  It's not science.  It's spirit."  This spirit was probably the same kind that director Spike Lee was convinced visited Denzel Washington during the filming of "Malcolm X".  For a long time Mr. Lee has told the story of when the actor was on the set giving a speech as Malcolm during the human rights activist-leader's days as an orator under the tutelage of Elijah Muhammad, saying that after the scripted speech was over and he yelled "cut", Washington would continue with his character's power and fire and brimstone speech for another minute or two, much to the astonishment of other cast and crew members.  When Washington stopped, he said to Mr. Lee that he didn't know what just happened, adding, "that wasn't me, Spike".

Washington's collaboration with Lee has been one of the signature big screen partnerships in recent American films, although Washington has collaborated with Edward Zwick three times ("Glory", "Courage Under Fire", "The Siege"), Tony Scott three times ("Crimson Tide", "Man On Fire", "Deja Vu") and twice with Mr. Jewison ("A Soldier's Story" and "The Hurricane") and Carl Franklin ("Devil In A Blue Dress" and "Out Of Time".)  He has also worked with director Mira Nair in "Mississippi Masala" in 1994 and Robert Townsend in "The Mighty Quinn" in 1988.  Over the last three calendar years (2005, 2006, 2007) Washington has been working almost non-stop, with Mr. Lee on "Inside Man", with Tony Scott on "Deja Vu" in New Orleans, with Mr. Scott's brother Ridley on "American Gangster", and directing "The Great Debaters" during the early months of this year into the mid-summer.  By the time Washington begins work sometime next month on a remake of "The Taking of Pelham 123" with John Travolta, the actor will have had about seven months off.  "Pelham" will mark Washington's fourth collaboration with Tony Scott, which will equal the number of times he and Spike Lee have worked together.  (When Mr. Lee had aggressively sought the rights for the Jackie Robinson biopic, which Robert Redford eventually secured, he had Washington in mind as the Major League baseball legend.)

For all of Denzel Washington's industry over the years, whether as an author, actor or director, he has what might be perceived as a blue-collar, lunch pail attitude to his day job:  "Acting is just a way of making a living, the family is life."

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  PopcornReel.com.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.
 

  Denzel Washington, Oprah Winfrey
At his villainous peak as LAPD narcotics officer Alonzo Harris, Washington with Ethan Hawke in "Training Day" in 2001, and at the L.A. premiere of "The Great Debaters" with Oprah Winfrey, one of the film's producers.  (Photos: Warner Brothers; WireImage respectively)

 

 


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