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In ‘Flight,’ Denzel Washington, white women and turbulence

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As Denzel Washington puckered up to kiss Kelly Reilly, his redheaded co-star in the movie “Flight,” you half expect the camera to cut away. Surely, Washington doing “love scenes” with a white woman in a movie billed as an airplane thriller would be too much baggage for the movie to fly.

And as the camera zoomed in on those locked lips, that proved to be the case.

I was watching a sold-out Saturday matinee at the Magic Johnson theaters in Largo — the place to go if you want to hear the audience interacting with what’s happening on screen.

Whenever the alcoholic pilot played by Washington would reach for a bottle after swearing off booze, for instance, someone in the audience would have to warn him. “No, Denzel, don’t do it!” And when he’d take a drink anyway, someone had to give voice to the communal disappointment. “Oh, Jesus, no he didn’t.”

The kiss, on the other hand, got no reaction at all. Just a mood-shifting silence, as if the theater had suddenly lost cabin pressure and there wasn’t enough air left to even let out a sigh.

Oh, Jesus, yes he did.

There was a long-standing belief that the reason Washington did so few interracial romantic scenes was not to offend black women, who are his core audience and greatest admirers.

Kelly Lynch, a white actress who starred with Washington in “Virtuosity” in 1995, reportedly gave a different reason during an interview with the A.V. Club in October.

“He said, ‘You know what, Kelly? I hate to say it, but, you know, white men bring women to movies, and they don’t want to watch a black man with their woman,’ ” she said.

For his part, Washington has noted that Hollywood, historically, was reluctant to put interracial relationships on the big screen, that he has no problem with it but won’t do it just for the sake of getting a reaction out of viewers.

But he’s done it now.

“It took me by surprise,” Mildred Bailey, an information technology specialist for D.C. Superior Court, told me after the movie.

Toni Blocker, a retired visual information specialist with the D.C. government, was blunt about it. “The relationship was awkward and didn’t work for me,” she said.

(I happen to think Washington deliberately made the kissing scenes look awkward, like he was kissing a window pane, a signal to black women that his heart really wasn’t in it.)

“I just sat there thinking: ‘Why couldn’t they have found a black actress to co-star with Denzel?’ ” Blocker said.

Washington has spoken out on that problem, too. During an interview with the London Observer in February, columnist Alex Clark asked him about the barriers facing African American actresses.

“Black or white, there seems to be a cut-off for women,” he said. “Don’t have a couple of kids; you’re out the door. They’re constantly looking for the younger one, the younger one, and for African American women, women of color, it’s doubly hard. And then for dark-skinned African American women, it’s even more difficult.”

And for the black audience, it can be even worse.

Take “Flight.” Two black women are cast as little more than stereotypical, long-suffering backdrops — an ex-wife whose heart has been broken by a selfish, lying, drunk black man; and a religious-minded flight attendant whom the black man morally corrupts by persuading her to lie for him.

On the other hand, the character played by Reilly turns out to be the black man’s saving grace, pointing him on the road to salvation. And when he strays, he is forced back in line by another white woman. She’s a federal investigator — and the only woman in the movie tough and savvy enough to get Washington to be honest with himself, to do what the black women could not.

I was expecting to see an airplane version of the 2010 movie “Unstoppable.”the 2010 movie in which Washington plays a railroad engineer who averts a disaster by stopping a runaway train.

What I saw instead was a tortured story about alcohol and drug abuse that was nearly ruined from the outset by gratuitous nudity and a ridiculously profane Washington, along with an unconvincing portrayal of his extramarital love life with a white woman.

Only the final few minutes are devoted to the character’s recovery from substance abuse. But they are powerfully acted by Washington; moving enough to make me glad I didn’t walk out in the middle of the movie after all that fake kissing began.

To read previous columns by Courtland Milloy, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.

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