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Does Denzel Always Have to Represent?

Call this the "Danny Glover effect," after the way Glover has often chosen roles in money-making films such as the "Lethal Weapon" franchise in order to earn the financial flexibility to make politically minded films such as "Bopha!" Samuel L. Jackson has done much the same, making schlocky movies that leave many shaking their heads but also using his celebrity to work with a female black director such as Kasi Lemmons on "Eve's Bayou" and "The Caveman's Valentine."

But I'd like to take Washington at his word when he says that it's about the role, not the image. Frank Lucas and Melvin B. Tolson were both deeply complicated and deeply flawed men. These figures offer access to the fertile, vibrant and untidy crevices of a black world that, for good or ill, continues to sustain the lives of everyday black folk. Washington understands that the stories of Lucas and Tolson deserve to be told every bit as much as the stories of the late poet Audre Lorde, the civil rights organizer Bayard Rustin and the early 20th-century educator and "race woman" Anna Julia Cooper.

The problem with the idea of the race man is not that too few strive to embody it but that it purports to define the kind of black body that can represent the whole race. The willingness of a Dave Chappelle or a Jay-Z to illuminate the less savory aspects of black life makes them unfit for the title of race man in the eyes of many. Jay-Z challenges such logic on his recent recording "American Gangster" (inspired by the movie) when he raps, "And if Al Sharpton is speaking for me/Somebody get him the word and tell him I don't approve/Tell him I'll remove the curses/If you tell me our schools gon' be perfect."

No one representation of blackness -- positive or not -- can encompass the complexity of black life. And what do we do with figures such as Oprah Winfrey or Sen. Barack Obama, both of whom challenge a tradition that expects black leadership to be incubated, as so many race men were, in the bosom of the black church? With Winfrey and Obama poised to revamp the very premise of mainstream political leadership in this country, perhaps it's time to give the race man the eulogy he deserves after more than a century of service. And let's give Denzel Washington some credit for finding value in our complexity.

Mark Anthony Neal is a professor

of African and African American Studies at Duke University and the author of "New Black Man."


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