‘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.
“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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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