Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Two): ‘I Love the 80s!’

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Brotherhood of Man

Denzel Washington (Biko) & Kevin Kline (Woods) in Cry Freedom (skymovies.com)
Denzel Washington (Biko) & Kevin Kline (Woods) in Cry Freedom (skymovies.com)

During breaks from St. Elsewhere, which was on its last legs anyway as a cutting-edge television series, Denzel Washington participated in a wide range of film projects that took him to unusual and unexplored territory — unusual for him and unexplored for his growing litany of fans.

The first of these, Cry Freedom (1987), featured the actor in the supporting role of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko. A contemporary of the late Nelson Mandela and leading founder of the Black Consciousness Movement in that racially divided state, Biko died in a Pretoria prison on September 12, 1977, after a series of brutal police interrogations.

Most individuals may recognize the name “Biko” as the title and subject of a 1980 protest song by British rocker Peter Gabriel. The worldwide outcry that resulted from his violent death — and which Mr. Gabriel’s song openly alluded to — made Biko a martyr to the cause of black resistance against the regime’s oppressive practices. Sadly, the activist did not live to see the liberation of his country from the restrictions placed on its citizens’ lives that Mandela would later bring about with his release from long-term confinement and eventual elevation to the presidency.

Shot on location in Zimbabwe and directed by former actor Richard Attenborough, whose previous work along so-called “epic” lines included such pictures as Young Winston (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), Gandhi (1982) and a biopic based on the life of silent-screen star Charlie Chaplin (Chaplin, 1992), Cry Freedom garnered universal praise for its earnestness of execution and faithful recreation of the period in question.

Unfortunately, it and other Attenborough efforts drew heavy criticism, too, for their low-voltage dramatics and overly respectful treatment of their subjects. One could say that Attenborough took the phrase “stiff upper lip” a tad too literally.

Still, despite these seeming shortcomings the director received a fiercely committed performance from Denzel, who earned the first of several Academy Award nominations in the Best Supporting Actor category, while sharing a wonderful working rapport with his co-star, the Juilliard School of Drama-trained Kevin Kline as Daily Dispatch reporter Donald Woods, whose posthumous books about Biko formed the basis for the screenplay.

Coincidentally or not, Cry Freedom also shared similar story elements with another British production from three years’ prior, that of Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields (1984), a film about the Khmer Rouge massacres in the war-torn region of Cambodia. In that harrowing flick, real-life Killing Fields survivor Haing S. Ngor played journalist and interpreter Dith Pran, whose friendship with New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg (a pre-Law & Order Sam Waterston) echoed the close bond reflected in Washington and Kline’s onscreen relationship: that is, of two men of different races and backgrounds joining hands across the divide for a common and worthwhile purpose.

The final result, though, received a mixed reception from the press, most of who felt Cry Freedom concentrated too much on Woods and not enough on Biko — a fair assessment given the amount of screen time Kline received over Denzel, but one that did not take into account the narrative arc of the story. To silence the would-be “wags,” as it were, Biko does appear in flashback after his death (albeit, intermittently). Interestingly, the most moving episode occurs when Woods and Biko’s widow, Wendy (Penelope Wilton), are left to gaze upon and mourn his mangled corpse.

For Denzel Washington, his quiet, dignified take on a figure of stature from recent history would without a doubt prepare him for the role of a lifetime, that of Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s biographical picture of the same name.

Hail Britannia – Not!

Denzel as Reuben, For Queen and Country (thelasttemptationofjaime.blogspot.com)
Denzel as Reuben, For Queen and Country (thelasttemptationofjaime.blogspot.com)

That dream assignment was still a few years off, though. In compensation for the wait, Denzel would prowl the nighttime streets in two back-to-back police/action dramas — one good and one bad. Starting things off on the wrong foot, let’s take the bad one first: For Queen and Country (1989), a crime thriller filmed in England that takes place during the Margaret Thatcher-era of low expectations and high unemployment.

Washington plays Reuben, an ex-soldier born in the Caribbean Island of St. Lucia, a former British colony. “He’s a guy who fought for Britain in the Falklands,” Denzel told the Los Angeles Times, “and finds it frustrating when he tries to re-adapt to life at home.” Sounds like a winner for Mr. Washington, right? Wrong! About 60 percent of the movie was financed with American capital, or about $3.5 million. However, it made back a much lower amount than that figure would suggest: box-office numbers from that period show For Queen and Country barely reaching $200,000 in receipts, a dismal showing at best.

The reasons for the film’s failure lay strictly with the formulaic script. It starts off well, with a cool-as-a-cucumber Denzel searching for work in a drastically altered West London landscape — altered, one should add, via a government law that stripped him and other nationals of their rights as British citizens. Encountering blatant racism and an enormous lack of opportunity (the film is front-loaded with anti-Thatcher rhetoric), the out-of-work Reuben reluctantly turns to the drug trade for survival as well as to help a friend in distress.

Our “what-the…?” quotient rises exponentially from here on, as the picture flounders under the weight of a standard police-crime procedural topped by a contrived ending. A major wrong turn for our hero Denzel, in its halfhearted attempt to pump him up to action-movie status, For Queen and Country veered from a likeable character study to a pale imitation of either an unfunny Eddie Murphy cop caper (of which there are legion) or a poor man’s Lethal Weapon (without the presence of Mel Gibson for laughs).

Time to Pah-tee, Pah-tee, Pah-tee!

Denzel as Quinn & Robert Townsend as Maubee in The Mighty Quinn (roberebert.com)
Denzel as Quinn & Robert Townsend as Maubee in The Mighty Quinn (roberebert.com)

A livelier and far more pleasurable outing — in ways that will become apparent to audiences later on, it points the way toward many of the actor’s future endeavors — The Mighty Quinn, Denzel’s next “shot on location” extravaganza, ushered in the year 1989 in true party-hearty fashion.

Picking up on a thread first hinted at in For Queen and Country, The Mighty Quinn takes place on a fictional Caribbean Island called St. Caro (unmentioned in the film, but spelled out in the book on which it was based). The real island paradise of Jamaica, however, stood in for the dirty dealings, shady situations and suspicious goings-on that exist in sleepy St. Caro — none of which disguise the lilting tropical accents, gorgeous tropical vistas, and equally beauteous lasses that populate the town and parade by Xavier Quinn, the island’s chief of police, charmingly played by Denzel.

There are more plot twists and memorably implausible moments in this feature than your average Warner Bros. thriller from Hollywood’s Golden Age — think the convoluted elements of The Maltese Falcon crossed with To Have and Have Not, and you have a reasonably good facsimile of what Chief Quinn and you, the viewer, have to put up with.

Music does charm these savage beasts, though, with the constantly recurring sounds of Jamaican rhythms not far in the background, embodied by a guest cameo of Rita Marley, the iconic Bob Marley’s widow, adding a note of authenticity to the nightclub scenes. It’s here that Chief Quinn shows off hitherto untapped pianistic abilities (Denzel claims to have tinkled the ivories while still in high school). He’s also got a pretty decent blues voice, interrupted when a makeshift band strikes up a reggae-rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Mighty Quinn,” an affectionate yet humorous jab at their bemused police chief.

Denzel’s handsomely impressive early visage at a wedding is striking, to say the least: wearing reflective Ray-Bans to ward off the effects of the late afternoon sun, he’s dapper in his dress-white constable’s uniform with matching pith helmet. Right away, the chief exerts the force of his authority, and demonstrates FBI-trained fighting skills, with his thwarting of a potential stabbing of the bridegroom by an uninvited guest. But the big payoff occurs when he finally confronts his childhood playmate, Maubee, languidly and impishly enacted by a perpetually toothy Robert Townsend.

It seems that his buddy Maubee is the sought-after perpetrator of a horrific murder. The victim? The wealthy owner of a luxury hotel in Quinn’s district. This results in a veritable cat-and-mouse game between Quinn and Maubee, in addition to various unsavory individuals they encounter along the way. Bobbing and weaving — now you see him, now you don’t — Maubee is harder to pin down than a Jamaican bobsled team. Quinn maintains a healthy skepticism throughout, since he just can’t believe his no-account friend would involve himself in such a crime.

Denzel and Townsend bounce off one another’s quirks and star-power personalities beautifully in a deliberate, low-key manner that makes the characters’ onscreen association as witty and endearing as any in recent filmdom. And that’s saying a lot for Townsend! A lesser actor would have been chewing up the scenery long before the finale, but not him. To what do we owe this credible relationship? Mostly to Denzel’s generosity and professionalism in allowing his acting partner, Townsend, enough leeway to create a believable counterpoint to Washington’s unconvinced Chief Quinn.

Surely, both Quinn and Maubee’s Caribbean-flavored accents are more authentic in this picture than Denzel’s was in For Queen and Country. Maybe this film needed to be retitled For Quinn and Country, but that’s a choice the late Swiss-born director Carl Schenkel needed to have considered.

As far as Mr. Washington’s subsequent screen career went, here’s a quote from Roger Ebert’s review at the time of The Mighty Quinn’s release: “The film stars Denzel Washington in one of those roles that creates a movie star overnight. In an effortless way… he is able to be tough and gentle at the same time, able to play a hero and yet not take himself too seriously.”

I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I’d like to add my two cents and declare the entire film to be in this vein: one can’t take it too seriously as a crime drama or too lightly as a musical dramedy either. It’s both, it’s neither. It’s here, it’s there, it’s a little bit of this, a little bit of that — much like its title character, Quinn, and its second lead, Maubee. They’re amiable and frisky, sexy and scheming individuals when they want to be, yet clever and loyal to each other when the truth eventually comes to light about the murder. Not to give anything away, but in the end when Maubee goes down, Chief Quinn winds up on top… big time. Tanks, mon!

(End of Part Two – To be continued)

Copyright © 2014 by Josmar F. Lopes

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