Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Six): Much Ado About Malcolm

Brother Malcolm (Denzel Washington) sings the praises of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (photo in background) in Spike Lee’s ‘Malcolm X’ (1992)

‘X’ Marks the Spot

When you’ve scaled the highest mountain and sailed the deepest sea, where do you go from there? And when actors reach the absolute peak of their profession, what do they do for an encore?

Every performer must ask these age-old questions, but not everyone is prepared to face the challenges. If they do confront them, not all of them can succeed. Some reach the summit only to fall flat on their butts; others manage to stay on top (but barely). Still others crest too soon, while some take years to reach their potential.

Clawing your way to success can become an all-consuming passion. Once there, however, the struggle continues for those whose needs are many — come what way. So who, in their right mind, would risk it all on a project deemed too risky and controversial to win over the hearts and minds of skeptics?

For film star Denzel Washington and producer, director, screenwriter and part-time actor Spike Lee (Do the Right Thing, Mo’ Better Blues, Jungle Fever), risk and controversy were an integral part of their game plan. The work they put into their next venture, Malcolm X — a project that had been kicking around Hollywood for some time — was almost too good to be true. In the words of the garrulous Mr. Lee, the film speaks for itself. “It just grows in stature,” he insisted. “That performance … ”

Ah, yes, THAT performance! Spike went into detail about Denzel’s preparation for the difficult part of Malcolm X in an online conversation with singer-performer Pharrell Williams for the Reserve Channel.

“All the speeches in the film were Malcolm’s actual speeches,” Lee claimed. “I’m reading the script. Well, the speech is over, I’m going to call ‘cut.’ But [Denzel] keeps going. He kept going another five minutes until finally the film ran out in the magazine. And the stuff that he said was better than Malcolm’s words. So, I finally called ‘cut.’ I go to Denzel. I said, ‘Denzel, that was great. But where did that come from? You went on five minutes after what was scripted!’ He said, ‘Spike, I don’t know.’ So that’s the type of … he was bringin’ it in.”

Malcolm (Denzel Washington) preaching in Harlem in ‘Malcolm X’

“Did that moment go in?” Pharrell inquired.

“Oh, it’s in the movie,” replied Lee. “But here’s the thing that people don’t understand. Denzel worked a year before we started shooting. He told his agent, ‘I’m not working anymore.’ He prepared a year for that role. What did he do? ‘I’m playing a Muslim. OK, I can’t eat pork anymore. I’m playing a Muslim, I can’t drink. I have to learn how to speak Arabic, I have to learn to read the Quran.’ He became a student of Malcolm. It’s more than just the impersonation. It’s more than just dyeing his hair red or putting on the glasses or the voice. Because all that is superficial.

“Denzel knew he had to be in a space spiritually where Malcolm comes into his vessel. So that’s why he was able to do that five-minute thing after the scripted pages ended. That was Malcolm in him, Malcolm came into his soul right there. I said [that] to Denzel, he could not remember what he said.

“You got to put the work in,” Lee concluded. “Otherwise, you’re bullshitting. You’re shuckin’ and jivin’ … If you’re bullshitting, your stuff is not going to stand the test of time.”

And what a time it was! The name part in Malcolm X, released in November 1992, was the longest and most elaborate of Denzel’s decade-long film career to that point and beyond. Next to Inside Man (2006), the Malcolm X project was Lee’s most “mainstream” picture. Denzel had earlier appeared as Malcolm in Laurence Holder’s 1981 off-Broadway play When the Chickens Come Home to Roost. Obviously, the star was familiar with the character’s background and had put forth the effort into becoming the former Malcolm Little, aka “Detroit Red.”

‘Malcolm’ in the Middle, Beginning and End

Denzel was close to the real Malcolm X’s age when he completed Spike’s massive three-hour epic. As a matter of fact, the ex-Nation of Islam minister and one-time follower of the (once) Honorable Elijah Muhammad was 39 years old at his death (on February 21, 1965), compared to Denzel’s 38. In the height department, Denzel stood six-foot one-inch tall, compared to Malcolm’s six-foot-three or -four, a slight if perceptible difference; and they both had slim builds.

Dee’s refined facial features, while elongated and thin, did not exactly resemble that of Mr. X’s. In critic and writer David Thomson’s judgment, Malcolm was “gaunter” and “had a hardened carapace — to life and the camera — that no actor could conceive of.” This was spot-on accurate. And as dynamic and flashy a presence as Denzel could bring to the screen, he had not yet gone through the vagaries of life nor had he experienced the poverty, the misery, the bitter struggles and severe hardships that Malcolm and the Little family had to contend with on a daily basis. Interestingly, the two men had more in common than originally thought: both their fathers were ministers, both came from large families, and both were raised by their mothers.

Side-by-side comparison: Malcolm X and Denzel Washington

Looking at it from another angle, Leonardo DiCaprio, who took on the eccentric Howard Hughes in Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004), faced a similar handicap. Since he neither resembled nor talked anything like the mysterious billionaire recluse, he was at a disadvantage. However, Leo did maintain a furrowed brow throughout the length of the picture. Perhaps he learned from Denzel that to assume the visage of a known historical figure, one must mentally realign one’s features (either by sheer concentration or force of will). There was also a huge age disparity between Hughes and the actor playing him. Basically, viewers had to take Leo’s assumption of the part more on “faith” than on actual likeness.

In contrast, Denzel’s smoother, unlined countenance captured, “in spirit” (as was claimed in the above discussions), the corporeal and emotional as well as the vital psychological characteristics of Malcolm in the assorted phases of his life: from kitchen worker to Pullman porter; from a street hustler, pimp and drug pusher to convicted felon; from ex-con to eager acolyte; from faithful minister to disillusioned devotee; and, finally, from an African-American seeking clarity and wisdom to that of a reinvigorated human being.

That was quite the trajectory for one man to have undergone. In that, Denzel would need all the help and support he could get from Spike and his large cast and crew. If, as they say, timing is everything, then both Lee and Dee were blessed and guided by it. The time, 1992, more than a year after the Rodney King beating, was indeed right for Malcolm’s story to be told. Much more than your normal biopic — their models would be Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi from ten years prior and the same director’s Cry Freedom (1987) about South African activist Stephen Biko, played by Denzel himself — Malcolm X traces the ups and downs and the ultimately tragic course of the main protagonist’s life-cycle.

The physical aspects of the production would, by necessity, encompass the changing hair and fashion trends of the various time periods in question, along with the settings, locales, events, personalities, and individuals involved. Some biographical matters would be rendered in flashback, whereas others moved the drama along in chronological order.

Each of the periods had its own specific look: for example, the zoot-suited weirdness of the thirties and forties (set in brightly-colored hues) and the darkly portentous sixties (told in earth-toned severity). As he did with Do the Right Thing, director Lee’s color palette (courtesy of cinematographer and fellow New York University Film School graduate Ernest Dickerson) varied from the bold and outlandish to the dowdy and stern. Historical accuracy would be stressed, but not slavishly so. And, more significantly, given Lee’s penchant for over-the-top, in-your-face brashness, Malcolm’s milieu would be recreated, as close as humanly possible, to what was known and documented about it.

Malcolm as “Detroit Red” (Denzel Washington) with his best friend Shorty (Spike Lee) in their zoot suits

Beginning with Malcolm’s “Detroit Red” period, Denzel would first personify the handsome dandy who could win over women and befriend the likes of gangster West Indian Archie (a distinctive Delroy Lindo). Malcolm’s escapades with best friend Shorty (Spike Lee, in a riotously comedic tour de “farce” part), his subsequent arrest and imprisonment, and his later conversion to Islam by the insistent Brother Baines (a stern Albert Hall) would take some liberties with the facts, but adhere closely (for the most part) to such sources as The Autobiography of Malcolm X as told to Alex Haley (first published in 1965) and the original screenplay by Arnold Perl (revised by scriptwriter Lee).

At the epicenter of activity would be Denzel’s pivotal interpretation. Similar to that of Peter O’Toole’s T.E. Lawrence from Lawrence of Arabia (1962) — another epic depiction of a flawed historical character surrounded by events spiraling out of his control — Dee would be present and accounted for in virtually every scene. Film critic Julian Roman had hitherto noted that Denzel’s Private Trip in Glory was “a transcendent performance.” If that was the case, then the actor’s active participation in Malcolm X transcended even that milestone effort.

Both he and Lee could have fallen on their butts if they failed to stir the masses. The famously motor-mouthed director was known to talk his head off about racial, economic, political, and socially relevant matters — topics designed to focus primarily on whatever theme or issue his latest project happened to touch upon. Success, in the eyes of some, would be fleeting if at all attainable.

They each proved their critics wrong. With his compelling screen presence, Denzel had successfully portrayed one man’s momentous journey despite the short, turbulent life he left behind; how that man had changed his outlook, at key intervals, because of his reawakening: first to religion, then to active militancy; next, to polemics; and, finally, back to religion — more precisely, to the universal brotherhood of man.

Cinematic Moments to Remember

The beauty of Washington’s performance, then, was his complete and utter devotion to Malcolm’s mission. You could sense his passion in every word and movement. For anyone watching the film, Denzel shines a beacon on what is, at first, a rather devious individual — called “the devil” in the scene where a Catholic priest (snidely played by Christopher Plummer) uses that exact term.

That this individual had a soul and a unique ability to move people to action is hinted at in the “indoctrination” process he underwent via the Nation of Islam’s efforts. Malcolm’s teary-eyed meeting with the Honorable Elijah Muhammad (humbly if calculatedly played by a soft-spoken Al Freeman Jr.) is one of the most memorable and moving episodes in the entire picture. Their solemn encounter had to be emphasized, for later, when Malcolm learns that Elijah Muhammad has been less than “honorable” in associating himself with under-aged girls, he experiences a change of heart.

In between, curious bystanders (few at first) both see and hear Malcolm giving street-side lectures and preaching to anyone who will listen that blacks have been oppressed by whites for centuries (“We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock. Plymouth Rock landed on us!”). He begins to draw more and more crowds. Soon, he becomes more popular than the man whose so-called “virtues” he’s been extolling. This does not curry favor with the Muslim brotherhood. The journey climaxes in the startlingly violent blood-bath near the end where Malcolm is gunned down before a gathering that includes his wife Betty Shabazz (a sympathetic Angela Bassett) and their young children. The scene is shocking in its brutality.

Malcolm’s wife Betty Shabazz (Angela Bassett) with Malcolm (Denzel Washington) in ‘Malcolm X’

Despite the lurid quality of his death, there are moments where Malcolm makes a point of demonstrating the power of the spoken word (and mesmerizingly so). In others, specifically the scenes at the police station where Malcolm confronts a surly white desk sergeant, which is also the place where a battered and bloodied Brother Johnson (Steve White) is visited by him and his band of “Brothers,” Malcolm is calm and deliberate. Here, moderation and steadfastness prevail.

In a related sequence, silence and hand gestures lead the way. When a mob of protesters is seen standing and shouting “We want Johnson!” outside Harlem Hospital, an enormous police captain (Peter Boyle) comes over to accost Malcolm. He orders him and his followers to disperse. After a doctor assures Malcolm that Brother Johnson will survive his wounds, Malcolm flashes a smile at the captain and, turning his back to the lawman, raises a gloved hand, which immediately quiets the crowd. Pointing his finger and hand in the opposite direction, the crowd calmly files out military style (to a “rum-tiddy-tum-tum” drum roll accompaniment). The startled captain remarks, under his breath, “That’s too much power for one man to have.”

Director Lee, whose knowledge of the movies was honed by his attendance at both Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, along with a Master of Fine Arts from the Tisch School of the Arts at NYU, had clearly referenced a similar situation from Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) where the gigantic Captain McCloskey (Sterling Hayden) tells Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) to clear out from guarding his dad, the wounded Vito Corleone, before bashing him on the jaw.

Police Captain (Peter Boyle) tells Malcolm to disperse the crowd

Prior to Malcolm’s untimely end, he experiences another epiphany. His life-changing pilgrimage to Mecca, the site of Islam’s holiest shrine, and his collective worship with others of the same faith — many of whom came from differing backgrounds, races, colors, and creeds — forces Malcolm to accept the fact that Islam, and indeed every religion, is meant for everyone and not just a select few.

In that wide-ranging conversation both he and Spike Lee had for the 2006 DVD/Blu-ray Disc edition of Inside Man, Denzel claimed that Malcolm X wasn’t his hardest role; that he had previously done the play and was familiar with the contentious black activist’s life. So he felt comfortable enough to do it. Possessing the “gift of gab,” as he phrased it, Denzel had Malcolm’s speeches pasted to his dressing room wall. When it came time to shooting the actual footage, Lee kept loading the camera with film.

“I was trying to capture the spirit,” Denzel confirmed for the cameras.

“The spirit,” Lee repeated and continued. “Just acting, ‘Well, I’m going to look like him,’ that’s just surface stuff.”

There was nothing “surface” at all about Denzel Washington’s Oscar-nominated turn, one of the finest screen portraits in many a year. He was able to penetrate deep inside, in between, over and above Malcolm’s surface and into the person himself. That the veteran Al Pacino beat him out for Best Actor honors in Scent of a Woman was an injustice and a dereliction of duty by the members of Hollywood’s Motion Picture Academy.

Nevertheless, when he worked on Malcolm X, Denzel would pray every morning, “before I came to that trailer,” to be filled with the man’s spirit. “I’m like, ‘All right, Malcolm, come on.’ And it’s not for me. It’s for him and for those hopefully that he affected.”

Those prayers were not in vain.

End of Part Six

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Leading Man on Fire — A Denzel Washington Primer (Part Five): ‘Together We Stand, Divided We Fall’

Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) chews over Napoleon Stone’s advice (Denzel Washington) in ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

‘Reel’ Life and Real Life

Whether it be on the big or small screen, or in the intimacy of the legitimate theater, to bring their characters to life actors must be able to draw from personal knowledge and experience. One of Denzel Washington’s chief assets as a film star and stage performer is his ability to capture, so vividly and earnestly, the essence of what makes his protagonists tick.

As a for instance, in Mo’ Better Blues (1990), where the youngster Bleek would rather go outside and play with his friends than practice his scales, the mother (represented by legendary African American artist Abbey Lincoln), is, at her core, a figure taken from real life. Denzel’s own mother, “Lynne” (a nickname for Lennis), was cited by him as a probable inspiration for that portrayal, as well as the actor’s driving force behind his success.

Near the end of the film, when Bleek finds himself teaching his young son Miles the finer points of trumpet playing, the boy gets distracted by friends calling out to him to come and play. Bleek’s wife, Indigo, takes Miles to task by insisting he practice his scales. Instead of a reprimand, Bleek, recalling his earlier encounter with mom and how she and his father ended up arguing about what to do, relents and allows Miles to go and join his pals.

Denzel revealed similar facets of his Mount Vernon childhood in a 1992 television interview with Barbara Walters. “I thought [my mother’s] purpose in life was just to embarrass me,” he let on. “She’d come get me on the street, at any time, in front of anybody.” He recalled an incident where his mother once smacked him across the cheek when he started to make faces at friends about his predicament. “I know that she never gave up on me. She had a lot of reason to. You know, I got kicked out of college and she did the same thing.”

Walters asked Denzel how he managed to overcome that setback. His response was that he took a semester off to read acting books, which then led to his finding work in summer stock. That’s how he got interested in the profession. Walters mentioned his private life, which remained private as far as the actor was concerned. She also brought up his family and the fact that he had four children, two of whom were twins.

Denzel Washington with his wife Pauletta

“One named Malcolm. After Malcolm X?” she queried. And who could blame Barbara for trying to make the obvious connection.

“No,” was Denzel’s immediate response.

“No?” she asked back, puzzled.

“No,” he added coolly.  “After my wife’s cousin Malcolm.” Apparently, Ms. Walters, the seasoned reporter and interviewer, and possibly her staff had failed to do their homework. Maybe they were out in the street playing ball.

Denzel switched the topic to his spouse Pauletta. “My wife, you know, is the backbone of our family. And I’m wise enough to admit that … We’ve known each other too long, we’ve been through too much … And being a star and all of that, temptations all around, and I haven’t been perfect. I’ll be quite candid about that. We’ve gone through ups and downs and we’re still together. And we’re best friends.”

This self-revelation about his past — and his acceptance of the conjugal life as a serious contract between two consenting adults — smacks of the understanding Denzel has had not only about his own life’s purpose and his reliance on strong women, but of what he could bring to his onscreen portrayals.

Getting to the “Heart” of the Matter

Two minor efforts and one reasonably competent release comprised the next phase of Denzel Washington’s cinematic output.

Advertising poster for ‘Heart Condition’ (1990)

The first film, titled Heart Condition, a drama-fantasy-comedy-police thriller, was released in February 1990 to mixed (code word for “middling”) reviews and less-than-decent box office returns. Starring the versatile English actor Bob Hoskins (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, Brazil, Hook) as police officer Jack Moony, the dashing Denzel as ambulance-chasing lawyer Napoleon Stone, Chloe Webb as the hooker with a heart of gold Crystal Gerrity, Roger E. Mosley as Captain Wendt, and Ja’net Dubois as Stone’s mother, the film has a reputation for having been a “career killer.” Surprisingly, neither Hoskins nor Denzel suffered any lasting repercussions because of it.

In Roger Ebert’s review, the late movie critic blasted the picture for being “all over the map,” one that “tries to be all things to all people” with multiple points of view, subplots galore, major and minor mishaps (including but not limited to endless car chases, shootouts, mistaken identities, etc.), and an over-abundance of double entendres and dumb sight gags, some in excruciatingly poor taste. And we thought Carbon Copy was bad! This flick tops even that early entry in the “comedy without substance” category.

The premise concerns a racist cop, Jack Moony, whose clashes with lawyer Stone come about through the shifty advocate’s spirited defense of his clients — namely, a pimp named Graham (Jeffrey Meek) and his stable of whores. One of the prostitutes, the aforementioned Crystal, is Moony’s ex-girlfriend. Things get “complicated” when (a) Stone starts to date the lovely Crystal; (b) Moony suffers a near fatal heart attack from over-indulgence; and (c) Stone gets shot and killed at around the same time. What, too many hitches for you? You ain’t heard nuthin’ yet!

While Moony is in the hospital, he undergoes an emergency heart transplant. Guess whose heart he gets? No, really! One of the flick’s (um) “funnier” moments comes when somebody plants an over-sized black rubber penis between the recovering officer’s legs as he lies in bed. His reaction? The aptly named Moony dashes out to the nurses’ station and plants the fake penis on the counter.

“You put it in, now you take it out,” he demands. The nurse looks over at the doctor and asks, “You wanna tell me where he had it?” Hardy, harr, harr. Of course, what Moony meant was to take the heart out. You see, he’s a bigot, a regular Archie Bunker-type. And being a bigot, he can’t stand the thought of a black man’s heart beating inside his white man’s chest — specifically, that of his worst adversary Stone. Imagine Archie Bunker getting, say, George Jefferson’s heart! Or worse, Fred Sanford’s from Sanford and Son! That’s the basic setup.

The ghost of Napoleon Stone (Denzel Washington) stares down at Jack Moony (Bob Hoskins) in ‘Heart Condition’

And there’s another gimmick to contend with: the lawyer reappears to Moony as a ghost (in expensive suit and tie, no less), not just to haunt him but to make his life miserable. How miserable does he make it? Well, Stone keeps after him about eating healthier (“Keep away from them cheeseburgers! They clog your arteries and make your breath stink!”); and he snatches his cigarettes to prevent Moony from getting cancer. But what Stone really wants from Moony is to solve the mystery of who killed him.

Oh, and one more point: the ghost tries to hook Moony up with the hooker, who’s really a nice girl underneath the glamorous lipstick and wardrobe. As I said, it gets complicated. Far be it for me to reveal any more of the plot. You’ll have to take my word for it: this is one convoluted crime caper. Still, Hoskins and Washington make a rambunctious pair — each with his own acting style. These two “bosom buddies” go at it tooth and nail, and then some. They’re about as compatible as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Danny DeVito. Just don’t expect anything in the way of intelligent conversations about race. It’s all for laughs, until it isn’t.

On a side note, neither actor would work together on any subsequent film projects.

Along similar but more violent lines, Denzel’s next picture, Ricochet (1991) — released in October 1991 and co-starring John Lithgow, Ice-T, Lindsay Wagner, Kevin Pollak, Josh Evans, and John Amos — was a police crime caper helmed by Australian action director Russell Mulcahy (Highlander, The Shadow).

Poster art for Russell Mulcahy’s ‘Ricochet’ (1991)

In this one (unseen by your truly), Denzel plays both a cop and a lawyer, occupations he will assume in many an upcoming feature. Lithgow is a vicious killer (talk about casting to type) who swears vengeance on Denzel, especially after the ex-cop becomes an assistant district attorney. And, like the ghost in Heart Condition, the Lithgow character succeeds in making Washington’s life miserable — a pure hell, to put it plainly, but without the cornball antics. This picture boasts so many twists and turns and hard-to-believe story angles that the characters gets lost in a maze of double- and triple-crosses.

Man Without a Country

On a slightly more believable note, the underrated Mississippi Masala (1991) held promise as a “date flick” with serious overtones. First released in France in September 1991, later in the UK in January 1992 and in the States a month later, Mississippi Masala blends a clash of ethnicities (one Indian American, the other African American) with a story about two everyday people who fall in love. Call it a romantic brew laced with social awareness.

Denzel plays Demetrius Williams, a self-employed carpet cleaner in Greenwood, Mississippi, about as far from the Mason-Dixon line of demarcation as you can get. Sarita Choudhury is Mina, a young Ugandan-born Indian woman who falls for the smooth-talking Demetrius. True to his gladiatorial namesake, the carpet cleaner engages in verbal combat with Mina’s father, Jay, played by Indian-born British actor Roshan Seth (Gandhi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom).

Mina (Sarita Choudhury) walks beside her main crush, Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in Mira Nair’s ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

Indian-American director, writer and producer Mira Nair (Salaam Bombay!, Monsoon Wedding), along with Indian-born screenwriter Sooni Taraporevala (Salaam Bombay!, The Namesake), fashioned an intelligently conceived account of racial conflict and reverse discrimination among working folk. Although there were problems at the outset with casting (for example, Ben Kingsley, a British subject with Indian ancestry, was originally slated to take on the part of the father) and the film barely broke even at the box office, Mississippi Masala can be seen as a precursor to Denzel’s next outing, the controversial Spike Lee-directed biopic Malcolm X.

Director Nair and her screenwriter completed the story in Brooklyn, after considerable research into the various cultures and locales involved. Filmed on location in and around Mississippi and Kampala, Uganda, the film has the ring of authenticity about it, as do the main characters and their hot-headed temperaments.

One of the movie’s prime attractions is the rapport shared by a charismatic Denzel with his attractive co-star, the engaging Sarita Choudhury. Their on-again, off-again, then on-again relationship is more than credible and firmly rooted in their respective character’s familial dilemmas. As critic Ebert observed, it’s “more than a transplanted Romeo and Juliet,” or an updated version of West Side Story. If anything, the lead characters’ issues are comparable to those of Tony and Maria.

Actress Sarita Choudhury as Mina, the love interest in ‘Mississippi Masala’

In Mina’s case, her father Jay, as head of the family, has suffered humiliation and expulsion from his home in Uganda due to ex-dictator Idi Amin’s edict that all “Asians” must leave the country forthwith. (This narrative corresponds, to some extent, to several of Denzel’s earlier forays Cry Freedom and For Queen and Country). Jay’s distrust of people of color and the motives behind their actions are the guiding forces of his and his wife’s objections to their only daughter dating an African American, albeit a successful sole proprietor. The situation is a difficult one for actors as well, in that they must convey bias towards one another in ways that audiences can relate to and sympathize without seeming obvious or cloying.

Much of the success of this production comes from Roshan Seth’s truthful yet poignant depiction of Jay as a victim of circumstances beyond his control. Both cultures, Indian and African American, are given equal time to make their case, both pro and con. Even the sharp-witted and keenly discerning Demetrius must contend with mindless preconceptions of so-called “family values” where his own relatives are concerned.

Jay (Roshan Seth) has a heart-to-heart with Demetrius (Denzel Washington) in ‘Mississippi Masala’ (1991)

We, the viewers, can make up our own minds based on our background and experiences. Whether you agree with Jay and his wife’s viewpoints (who appear to discriminate among their own kind), or whether you take Demetrius and Mina’s side of the argument (one that shines a light on the struggles of all people of color in the segregated South), there will be lots to discuss after the houselights come up. The closing footage, wherein a young Ugandan child stretches forth his hand to touch Jay’s cheek, will touch your heart as well.

Indeed, this highly recommended flick has topical resonance for today’s displaced migrants and for all individuals who identify with country and culture — the essence of what makes us tick.

End of Part Five

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

From the Depths to the Heights and Back Again: Wagner’s ‘Ring’ Winds Its Weary Way Around Town (Part Four)

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) faces the dragon Fafner in the Met Opera broadcast of Wagner’s ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Gods and Monsters

In Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring cycle, we return to the realm of gods and monsters; of heroes and villains, myths and legends, dragons and dwarfs, mighty deeds and damsels in distress (well, one damsel, at any rate). For listeners, Siegfried represents a respite from the runaway emotions that ran rampant throughout Die Walküre. And conductors, as well as laypeople, have regarded Siegfried as the saga’s scherzo movement, much as one would experience with a Haydn or Beethoven symphony.

Indeed, there is much to savor, not only in the lustrous Forest Murmurs of Act II (with the titular hero’s ruminations about his dead mother), but in the lengthy tenor-soprano interlude that concludes the work. There’s also Siegfried’s battle with the dragon Fafner, and, of course, that marvelous Forging Scene in Act I. With the pounding of the anvil and the firing up of the blast furnace, Siegfried forges the shattered remnants of Notung (along with his manhood) in order to slay the savage beast.

As well, the dusky forest settings of Acts I and II and their darkly brooding scoring will evoke memories of George Lucas’ Star Wars, Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, in which Luke Skywalker seeks out Jedi Master Yoda so as to learn the ways of the Force. In Siegfried, the title character is taught the ways of the world (or not) by the malicious dwarf Mime. Siegfried learns about his mother, Sieglinde, who died while giving him birth. He’s also shown the fragments of Notung, which his mother had entrusted to Mime. Up to this point, Mime has played for time.

Behind the dwarf’s feigned concern for his ward’s education, though, is the ever-present influence of the all-powerful Ring of the Nibelung. To wit, the Nibelung himself, Alberich, returns to the cycle by means of an Act II argument with the god Wotan and his no-account brother, Mime. While there is no Darth Vader as such, Siegfried’s grandfather, Wotan (in the guise of the Wanderer), does cross swords (or his spear) with the emboldened youth.

Certainly, the last scene of the opera is where fairy tales can come true by way of Brünnhilde’s awakening. To be precise, the entire third act is a masterly reconfiguration of the Sleeping Beauty story — albeit with a smattering of pre-Freudian psychoanalysis thrown in. As you may recall, Wotan’s disobedient child acted out his fondest wishes by protecting Siegmund (Siegfried’s father) from harm in the fight with Hunding. As punishment, Brünnhilde was deprived of her godhead and placed under a powerful sleeping spell. Surrounded by a ring of impenetrable fire, the former Valkyrie dozes away until such time as a fearless warrior can awaken her.

There’s even a hint of classical Greek mythology, i.e., the Oedipus and Sphynx-like colloquy in Mime’s vituperative questioning of the mysterious Wanderer. He, likewise, poses three questions of his own — with the scheming dwarf failing to answer the third and most vital question of all: Who will forge Notung anew? The answer: Only he who is without fear (and we know who THAT is, don’t we?) can make Notung whole.

The Wanderer (Michael Volle) tells Mime (Gerhard Siegel) that he has forfeited his head in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

It’s not all brain teasers by any means. Personally, I find Siegfried to be a most refreshing interval, and a totally involving one where the nature of the hero’s journey is concerned. Siegfried is honest to a fault, a bit dense in the head and slow to catch on, but he’s diligent and brave, trustworthy and strong. He’s also a lot swifter than he lets on.

On the other hand, the crafty Mime thinks himself superior in every way to the motherless brat. But the main point is this: Siegfried figures prominently in Mime’s plans to secure the Ring for himself, and the bountiful treasure that goes with it. All he needs is for the valiant lad to slay the dragon Fafner, who guards the hoard and magical Ring from deep inside its cave. After which, Mime will quench Siegfried’s thirst with a poisonous drink and chop his head off. With that, the Ring and the gold will be his! How simple is that?

Plot Points to Ponder

Not so fast! There’s more to the plot than meets the eye (or rather, Wotan’s missing organ). Remember Alberich’s curse? He placed it on whoever holds the Ring. And all those who long to possess it will be cursed as well, including those innocent folks who know nothing of its power. In essence, there are more expository sequences in this work than in the two prior ones. It’s those long, protracted stretches of dialogue that audiences find grueling and a chore to slog through. With the arrival of supertitles (aka surtitles) and such, the intricacies of the plot can be explained and that once-impenetrable Wagnerian veneer can be cracked.

For me, the real interest in this piece lies with the sonic, orchestral and philosophical contrasts between the second and third acts. At his wits’ end — emotionally, creatively and financially — Wagner abandoned work on the Ring before concluding Act II of Siegfried. Dismayed at ever being able to finish and produce his piece, the composer went off to write Tristan und Isolde, about as complicated a project as any that came before. After Tristan, Wagner took up the composition of Die Meistersinger, another exercise in vocal and literary extremes. What was Wagner thinking?

It would be twelve years before he would return to Siegfried. Well, to be honest, before he put down his pen twelve years earlier, Wagner managed to place some final touches to Act II. This may help to explain why that act is so jumbled story wise. One would think that the slaying of Fafner would put an end to that portion of the saga. Not so! We’re only at the midway point. There’s still that nasty little back-and-forth between Alberich and Mime, and others matters to attend to (like slaying Siegfried).

To top it off, Siegfried returns to the scene of his “crime,” after having tasted the dead dragon’s blood and learned to decipher bird song. Too, his newly acquired ability to comprehend the meaning behind the dwarf’s words (in a comedic episode where Mime mindlessly betrays his intentions to murder Siegfried and make off with the Ring and its booty) leads our hero to strike the villain down with one blow. Next, the Forest Bird tells him of a wondrous maid named Brünnhilde just waiting for him beyond the ridge. Siegfried is elated at the news. Finally, a new friend is within his reach, someone to talk to, someone to trust!

Wotan, as the Wanderer (Michael Volle), bows before Erda, the Earth Mother (Karen Cargill), in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

At the start of Act III, the change of mood is palpable. The orchestral tone has modified somewhat and is immediately felt with the massively impressive introduction. Lightning and thunder abound. The world order is about to collapse. The Wanderer’s theme and that of Wotan’s spear are heard above the orchestral storm as the music rages on. But the god’s authority will be tested. And with it, the old must give way to the new.

Still disguised as the Wanderer, Wotan urgently calls upon Erda one last time. He uses her alternate name, Wala (“Wache, Wala! Wala! Erwach! – “Awake, Wala! Wala! Wake up!”), to summon the Earth Mother from her eternal slumber. He seeks knowledge of the future and what to expect from coming events. Erda, her speech as impenetrable as ever, can no longer help or offer any advice. Left to his own devices, Wotan is resigned to his fate. He tells her that he welcomes the end and will wait in expectation of whatever is in store.

When Siegfried approaches, the Wanderer purposely bars his way. Goading him on and plying him with query after query, the exasperated Siegfried has had enough. If the bothersome stranger won’t budge and let him through, then Notung will clear the path. Wotan challenges the youth, but the god’s spear is splintered in two with one blow. Calmly picking up what’s left of his authority (the act of which will remind audiences of Wotan’s shattering of Notung in Die Walküre), our weary warrior tells Siegfried to press on: he can no longer stop him. Wotan has removed himself from interfering in life.

The next sequence in the saga is pregnant with psychological insight and replete with magnificent music, including Siegfried’s passage through Loge’s flames and his discovery that the sleeping figure before him is no man. Now he knows what fear is! (In Harry Kupfer’s Ring, Siegfried places Notung between his legs, thus the sword has become a phallic symbol of youth about to attain maturity). Our hero bends down and cautiously places a prolonged kiss on Brünnhilde’s lips to music of aching mystery and longing.

The sleeping maiden awakens to a brilliant theme, that of the rising sun: “Heil, dir, Sonne! Heil dir, Licht!” (“Hail, rising sun! Hail, glorious light!”). Both are delirious with joy to discover one another, but in the midst of their happiness Brünnhilde remembers that she is now a mortal, helpless and defenseless against this presumed lover.

Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) greets the rising sun in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Unfazed by her appeals to leave her be, Siegfried the bold convinces the former war-maiden to give herself over completely to his love; to be his bride in what must be the most challenging and uplifting soprano-tenor twosome Wagner ever wrote. And it comes after almost five hours of music-making! Let them enjoy their rapture for now, for it shall be short-lived.

Broadcast Delights

I’m sure you will agree that this particular Ring-cycle broadcast held ample delights for yours truly. As in most of Wagner’s works, its length can be trying to us mortals. Not here. In the first place, we were thrilled to hear an honest to goodness Siegfried voice in that of the debuting Stefan Vinke. Where has this fellow been hiding for goodness sake? The German-born tenor bounced around the stage with the abandon of youth. Not only that, but he brought a cutting yet cultivated edge to Siegfried, gobs of personality and charm, superb diction, lyrical restraint where called for, and boyish enthusiasm to spare, capped off with ringing top notes.

Indeed, not since the time of Wolfgang Windgassen at Bayreuth (and on records) has there been a tenor so attuned to the vocal and physical demands of this nearly impossible part. How well I remember the labored quality of Jess Thomas, gorgeous to look at but barely up to the task. When this Robert Lepage production was new, Jay Hunter Morris made headlines as a last-minute substitute for the indisposed Gary Lehman (who was himself a replacement for the retiring Ben Heppner). Morris has since abandoned the role (a wise decision) for more, shall we say, mature offerings. Vinke, on the other hand, looked, acted, and sang as an impetuous youth should, a marriage made in Met Opera heaven and in spite of this production’s stage limitations.

Siegfried boasts to Mime that he alone can forge the sword Notung in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard/ Met Opera)

The Met was indeed lucky to have not only Vinke but another fine tenor, the Austrian Andreas Schager, waiting in the bullpen so to speak. We heard Schager on the April 27, 2019 broadcast of Götterdämmerung. Both singers turned in stellar contributions, with Vinke taking a victory lap for the most outstanding appearance by a new artist. Schager, lighter in timbre, clearly luxuriated in the language. Yet Vinke captured the doltish, pigheaded behavior of a post-pubescent teenager better than any singer in recent memory. In contrast to which, Schafer’s more modest scale proved winning in itself, especially when he let loose with a ringing high C in Act III of Götterdämmerung, before being joined by Gunther, Hunding and the Vassals.

Either singer’s approach can work within the context of this production’s demands. The character’s volatile nature and hair-trigger temperament came naturally to both artists. Vinke’s mood swings and verbal sparring matches with Gerhard Siegel’s feisty Mime were a highlight of Acts I and II. Many small details and pointed repartee were noted in both their performances — some subtle, others more overt. On the radio, Siegel’s voice was easily discernable from that of the younger Vinke; this made differentiating between tenors less arduous than usual.

What of the production’s Brünnhilde? She must have the longest wait time of anybody in opera: three full acts, and lots of plot exposition to plow through before she sings a note of music. When she finally did awake, the glorious sound of soprano Christine Goerke filled the Met hall with vibrant, full-toned abandon. Yet, I noticed some unsteadiness in the higher reaches, and, unusual for her, a certain lack of focus. Perhaps the lengthy wait took some of the “oomph” out of Ms. Goerke’s approach. Not so with her acting, which stressed the Valkyrie’s warm and womanly side.

Siegfried (Stefan Vinke) marvels at the warrior maiden, Brunnhilde (Christine Goerke) in Act III of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Do I sound like I was disappointed in her performance? Yes, I hate to admit it. I strained to experience that moment of elation where many Brünnhilde’s are wont to display at this point in the drama. I’m thinking, of course, of the likes of Birgit Nilsson, Gwyneth Jones, Hildegard Behrens, and others. Not every singer can emit the raw power of a Nilsson, or the depth of feeling a Kirsten Flagstad or a Helen Traubel could bring, to name but a few of the classic interpreters from the past.

Yes, it was an undeniable pleasure to hear Goerke in this part, one she has taken to other select venues besides the Met. Still, I’m at a loss to explain my lack of exhilaration. Where was that sense of discovery, the realization that Siegmund’s son and heir is the hero that Brünnhilde has waited so long for? With all that said, Goerke did bring susceptibility to the Valkyrie maiden, lovingly expressed toward the end as she accepted Siegfried as her conqueror. The pair went out in a blaze of glory, with each jointly taking a high C that ends their ebullient musings. As Siegfried all-but pounced on the prostrate prima donna, the Met audience let out a roar of approval at the final curtain.

As the white-haired Wanderer, baritone Michael Volle, previously heard as Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger and as the mythical Flying Dutchman, took over for Greer Grimsley in this radio broadcast. Volle brought equal reserves of intelligence and endurance to the part, along with steadiness and a balmy timbre that were lacking in Grimsley’s Walküre Wotan. I missed the sense of self-deprecating humor in Volle’s portrayal, and the voice was a tad drier than his predecessor’s. Overall, he engaged the listener’s interest in the question and answer session with the wheedling Mime, courtesy of Herr Siegel. Volle’s two confrontations in Act III — his call to the Earth Mother and his verbal clash with his belligerent grandson — were vocal and histrionic highlights. Well done, sir!

The Wanderer (Michael Volle) raises his spear, the symbol of his authority, in Act I of ‘Siegfried’ (Photo: Ken Howard / Met Opera)

Equally prominent was returning bass-baritone Tomasz Konieczny’s vitriolic Alberich, as clear-voiced and vocally galvanic as the positive impression he had made in Das Rheingold. Stratospheric coloratura Erin Morley as the chirpy Forest Bird and basso Dmitry Belosselskiy, while both were heavily amplified, conveyed their respective character’s pluses and minuses convincingly. Mezzo-soprano Karen Cargill repeated her resonantly sung Erda, who also goes by the nickname Wala. Too bad the part is so short, a handicap that also afflicted Wotan’s mate, Fricka.

This production made the best use of the digital technology for which it was designed, especially in the scenically enchanting forest sequences. Holding it all together was maestro Philippe Jordan, who demonstrated deep affection for this longish score. Numerous minor details in the orchestral writing were brought out, to loving effect. Indeed, all the performers were happily greeted with cheers and bravos at each act’s end, a not-so-standard practice at the modern Met Opera. There was a time when artists were treated to prolonged cheers between acts (it was considered routine). Nowadays, the practice has become as rare as passenger pigeons (or talking Forest Birds).

End of Part Four

(To be continued….)

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes