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Go ahead, Denzel, be bad…

January 6, 2008 by  
Filed under News, Weekly Columns

( The actor shouldn’t be expected to portray only black men of stature

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 portraying black men as thugs.

That’s not how I see it. To me, the more important question that Mr. 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.

Early in Mr. Washington’s career, he was often drawn to the part of the heroic do-gooder; his roles in Cry Freedom and the Civil War epic Glory 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, Mr. 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) and Jake Shuttlesworth (He Got Game) represented the new race man, whose main emphasis was on being manly. These characters were self-absorbed and selfish. Still, many black audiences embraced them, if only because Mr. Washington had earned their trust.

But that trust began to erode with Mr. Washington’s portrayal of Alonzo in Training Day. When he finally won the coveted Best Actor Oscar for that role, much was made of his being rewarded for portraying a character who demeaned African-Americans. And yet it was easy to give Mr. Washington a pass because the Motion Picture Academy had ignored his more celebrated roles.

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.

Mr. Washington’s desire to portray the gangster Mr. 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.”

Mr. Washington may have been seeking redemption with The Great Debaters. It tells the feel-good story of Melvin B. Tolson, who coached the debate team at historically black Wiley College in the 1930s.

In his portrayal of Mr. Tolson, Mr. Washington reasserts his claim to the race-man mantle. In fact, he may have chosen to do American Gangster because it would give him the bankability to make an African-American period piece that most Americans will ignore.

But I’d like to take Mr. Washington at his word when he says it’s about the role, not the image.

Frank Lucas and Melvin B. Tolson were both deeply complicated and flawed men. These figures offer access to the fertile, vibrant and untidy crevices of a world that, for good or ill, continues to sustain the lives of everyday black folk. Mr. Washington understands that these stories, too, deserve to be told.

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.

No one representation of blackness – positive or not – can encompass the complexity of black life. 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.

Written By Mark Anthony Neal

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