By Mark Anthony Neal
Sunday, December 23, 2007
For most of his career, Denzel Washington has been the epitome of a "race man" -- a well-mannered, well-intentioned role model thoroughly committed to black uplift. He's maintaining that tradition in "The Great Debaters," a new film in which he plays a champion debate coach in the segregated South.
But his recent portrayal of the murderous Harlem drug lord Frank Lucas in "American Gangster," following his Oscar-winning performance as the corrupt cop Alonzo in "Training Day," has shaken his standing as a race man -- and has prompted speculation that, after years of playing characters who symbolized African Americans' mainstream acceptance, he's finally selling out to a commercial culture eager to make a buck off of portraying black men as thugs.
That's not how I see it. To me, the more important question that Washington's career choices raise is: Why, as the nation grows to appreciate the many different ways of being black, do we still need race men at all?
"Race man" is a term from the beginning of the 20th century that describes black men of stature and integrity who represented the best that African Americans had to offer in the face of Jim Crow segregation. It has lost some of its resonance in a post-civil rights world, but it remains an unspoken measure of commitment to uplifting the race. Race men inspire pride; their work, their actions and their speech represent excellence instead of evoking shame and embarrassment. Thus the pundit Tavis Smiley and the Rev. Jesse Jackson (even with an illegitimate child) can be race men, whereas the comedian Dave Chappelle and the rapper/mogul Jay-Z can never be.
Sidney Poitier had impeccable race-man cred. The legendary black actor was one of the first to achieve mainstream success, and he never wavered. In films such as "The Defiant Ones" (1958), "In the Heat of the Night" (1967) and even "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner" (1967), he made us proud to be black. At the height of the black-power movement, when his articulate, educated and even affable characters were often measured against fiery political icons such as Malcolm X and the Black Panther leader H. Rap Brown, some blacks felt ambivalent about Poitier. But the actor's willingness to support the civil rights movement appeased those who wanted a more radical image.
There's little doubt that Poitier and contemporaries such as James Earl Jones and Raymond St. Jacques influenced Washington in his choice of roles. Early in his career, he was often drawn to the part of the heroic do-gooder; his roles in "Cry Freedom" (as the martyred anti-apartheid hero Steve Biko) and the Civil War epic "Glory" (which won him a 1990 Academy Award for best supporting actor) displayed his gravitas. The tear he shed when his character, Pvt. Trip, was flogged in "Glory" lent black men a depth of humanity not seen in American cinema before or since.
In his collaborations with director Spike Lee, Washington complicated the race-man ethos. No longer defined solely by their willingness to stand up for their race, characters such as Bleek Gilliam ("Mo' Better Blues"), Jake Shuttlesworth ("He Got Game") and Detective Keith Frazier ("Inside Man") represented the new race man, whose main emphasis was on being manly. These characters were self-absorbed and selfish and demanded the respect they thought they deserved. Still, many black audiences embraced them, if only because Washington had earned their trust, especially after his signature collaboration with Lee on the film "Malcolm X."
But that trust began to erode with Washington's portrayal of Alonzo in "Training Day." When he finally won the coveted Best Actor Oscar for that role, on the same night that Halle Berry won Best Actress, much was made of their being rewarded for portraying characters who demeaned African Americans. And yet it was easy to give Washington a pass, because the Motion Picture Academy had ignored his more celebrated roles as Rubin "Hurricane" Carter and Malcolm X.
The cultural landscape has changed considerably since then. In the aftermath of the Don Imus debacle, hip-hop culture and rap music in particular have become litmus tests for the recent erosion of black culture's prestige.
Washington's desire to portray the gangster Lucas -- the kind of character that has become a staple of so much commercial rap music -- understandably raised eyebrows. In an interview with Men's Vogue, the actor defended his choices: "It's not about the black experience. It's more specific and selfish than that. It's what I feel like doing, not what I feel like people need."
Washington may have been seeking redemption with "The Great Debaters," produced by Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Productions and opening on Christmas Day. It tells the feel-good story of Melvin B. Tolson, who coached the debate team at historically black Wiley College in the 1930s. At a time when black intelligence was under assault, Wiley's team challenged conventional wisdom by successfully competing against its white peers. (Imagine "Akeelah and the Bee" or "Pride" taking place in a debate hall.)
In his portrayal of Tolson, a celebrated if largely forgotten modernist poet, Washington reasserts his claim to the race-man mantle. In fact, he may have chosen to do "American Gangster," which reportedly earned $46 million on its opening weekend, because it would give him the bankability to make an African American period piece that most Americans -- including quite a few blacks -- will ignore.
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."