The blandest of black screen stars, Washington isn't anything so simple as what used to be called a "token" (a symbolic figure of tolerance hired to fill a quota or prove the system is fair); the 90s don't recognize the existence of tokens, just success stories. Every recent role Washington essayed has been an authority figure (including Courage Under Fire, Crimson Tide, Fallen, The Siege) in which he acts out the career opportunities opened up for blacks since Poitier's heyday. Frequently cast as a bureaucratic superior, Washington's screen appearances as men of accomplishment disprove any fear of racist hiring practices or social incapacity. (In Crimson Tide Gene Hackman bitch-slaps him just because.) He became People's "Sexist Man Alive" in 1996?despite an unflattering cover photo?because, today, success is sexy. His winner image pacifies both whites' fear and blacks' entitlement.
Gullible people would call this progress; it's merely de rigueur. Clinton-era liberalism (Hollywood's creed) dreams that the economic boom benefits everyone, leveling the playing field, eradicating bias. With that assumption comes complacence about the actual stagnation of black social advancement. Even the new Woody Allen movie Sweet and Lowdown features, after so many years of apartheid, a black narrator (among many) and a sprightly, benign look at 30s black domesticity?never mind that the jazz musician protagonist is still a white guy (modeled after minstrel anomaly Emmett Miller). Hollywood thinks it leads the way by fabricating the American scene. But a review of the predominant black roles in current movies belies the fantasy of social acceptance. Few black characters demonstrate imaginative equality. Filmmakers don't conceive autonomous black characters whether played by Denzel, Will Smith or Chris Tucker. As Ralph Ellison lamented in 1966, "cinema [has] been devoted to justifying the negro's condition." Crazy thing is, today's movies use putatively positive, often badass characterizations to do it. These caricatures are multiplying; the new class of successful black actors graduate to play best friends to the white hero (David Chappelle in You've Got Mail); the rooting team for white heroines (Object of My Affection); and ever-reliable villains (Liberty Heights, In Too Deep). They represent the crass of 1999.
Samuel L. Jackson fits this bill even more than Washington. Jackson's become the movie face of the 90s?truculent, wizened with hate, never smiling, monstrous. You can tell from the way Jackson is photographed in Deep Blue Sea (in unflattering aqua light) that he is in whites' racial nightmares?a distortion of the Negro ideal Poitier once was, therefore unfit to ever play heroic or sympathetic black historical figures. His annihilation scene in Deep Blue Sea was the year's most exhilarating?like a silent wish granted.
L.L. Cool J's three film performances this year destroy the goodwill he won in hiphop. Still a charismatic presence, L.L. shows an actor's instincts but no integrity. Telling a BET host the only thing he wouldn't do is play a gay character, L.L. nonetheless, in In Too Deep, lifted the Abner Louima case out of the papers and emulated Justin Volpe by sodomizing a black man with a pool cue while chanting, "Love it, love it. Think about it, think about it." In Deep Blue Sea, L.L. played a superstitious preacher/chef speaking such gems as, "I gotta get my eat on, right?" Commenting on monster movie cliches, his character said, "Brothers never make it out of situations like this," but instead of subverting genres he acquiesces to Hollywood convention. Too happy to be there, he'll do almost anything, even trivializing his character's reverence with blasphemy: "I shall fear no evil/Because I carry a big stick/And I'm the meanest motherfucker in the valley." Outswimming Renny Harlin's super-shark, L.L. hollered, "Take me back to the ghetto," shouting out to brothers in the action movie crowd, delivering them back to their exploited situation without ever relieving them of its pressure. He doesn't have the integrity Ice Cube evinced in Three Kings. (Cube forces films to answer the need for esteem and therapy that he rapped about with Public Enemy on "Burn, Hollywood, Burn!") L.L., in Any Given Sunday, just bluffs, "Kiss my Armani ass!"
Eddie Murphy plays out this circumstance in Bowfinger; its best jokes address the modern black viewer's relationship to commercial genre through Murphy performing personality extremes. In Last Action Hero the subject of media entrapment used only a white kid to represent the youth audience's manipulated appetite. Kit and Jiff, the two halves of Eddie Murphy's Bowfinger personality, the action hero star and the nerd, stand for more than just a joke. They represent a split in black pop ambition: the star's need for "Juice," as Vibe tantalizes once a year, and the civilian's pathetic hunger for excitement.
Whoopi Goldberg, super careerist, shows up in Girl, Interrupted as a kindly variation on Nurse Ratched tending to pampered whitegirl schizos. Winona Ryder puts her in her place as "a colored welfare mother." And Whoopi smiles benignly (while mentally balancing her bank statements). Goldberg will do anything that gives her a slippery transcendence over Hollywood vagaries. Never mind that in her 15-year movie career she's only made two decent films (The Color Purple and The Player). Her determination to be a black screen presence?at all costs?is unprecedented, even if it means indulging odious black stereotypes as when she flubbed the situation of West Indian nannies in Clara's Heart but delivered the climactic black-male-bashing monologue of rape-incest-suicide.
Delroy Lindo, a great stage actor in August Wilson's Joe Turner's Come and Gone, has yet to find a screen role worthy of his talent. He, too, gets caught in the stereotype trap. Usually stuck in Spike Lee's debaucheries, the new Cider House Rules presents him as an incestuous rapist. Sad that Lindo's sculptural presence and magnetism is frequently used to justify such fears as killer pimp (Malcolm X), killer dope-dealer (Clockers) and now a child abuser who?in the spirit of Clara's Heart's defamation?is a stereotype so good with knives, he performs his own symbolic castration.
Cuba Gooding played the most distinctive and revealing black 90s role?the people-pleasing psychiatrist in Instinct. Though he winds up getting shrunk by his own patient, Anthony Hopkins, Cuba achieved a revelation. His character's yuppie front crumbled, admitting a fear of not living up to his own image; awaking every day to plan how he can make people like him and approve his social standing. An intense moment and frighteningly believable (it justifies his Oscar dance). Gooding got at the heart of what motivates successful black actors in movieland and successful blacks anywhere in the middle-class world. It's a performance to come back to and remember.
Ving Rhames won't let you. As Pulp Fiction's second black clown, he only plays parts calculated to appease whites scared of his bulk and basso non-profundo. Rhames doesn't get roles that allow him to rethink stereotypes; he plays them full-out. Although nominally Sean Connery's superior in Entrapment (a Hollywood job promotion), the film reduces the character to a scene where Rhames brings Connery his groceries. You can tell how deluded Rhames is when his character bit means swigging from a new carton of milk. He studies it intensely before drinking, as if the pause changed the overall subservient role. Rhames reappeared this year shucking and jiving for Scorsese. Bringing Out the Dead indeed; Rhames and Marty resurrected the ghosts of Amos 'n' Andy.
Angela Bassett gave up superheroism to carry groceries for Meryl Streep in Music of the Heart. Sure, Bassett plays the school's principal and Streep a mere adjunct, but the true function of the role (and purpose of the character) is attending to Miss Streep's needs. Same thing happened in the sci-fi weeper Contact, where Bassett, as a presidential adviser, was really no more than a glorified secretary?and maid, helping Jodie Foster dress for the big ball.
Queen Latifah does nothing in The Bone Collector that Hattie McDaniel didn't already do (and to stronger effect) as Mammy in the 1930s. Her surprisingly sensible talk show presents a more varied and likable figure than any Latifah has played on film?including the larcenous dyke in Set It Off and the lugubrious jazz singer in Living Out Loud. But The Bone Collector proves how pseudo-militancy passes in this hip-pop era for strength of character. (It's like Ice-T playing cop killer yet glamorizing cops on film.) No less an afterthought than the housemaids of old Hollywood, Latifah's insignificance is not changed by having her work for a black man?it's still the same old class demotion but it's supposed to be better because Latifah is so sassy. Well, Hattie McDaniel never got a knife to the gut. Even today's savviest black performers can't tell when they're being insulted; they're content with getting paid.
People went to see Denzel and Angelina Jolie in The Bone Collector for sex?except he didn't bone her! In his post-Malcolm X films, Washington has turned his stardom into a strange, nonaccommodating militancy (a Spike Lee influence?) that only half-rejects mainstream nostrums. He bluffs insolence, refusing love scenes with white female stars like Jolie and Julia Roberts only to finally bang Milla Jovovich's street ho in He Got Game. Unlike Wesley Snipes, he constantly lowers his sexual energy. After famously refusing to wear chains in Amistad or play in Beloved, he played a quadriplegic in The Bone Collector?basically Sorry Wrong Number?chained to a hospital bed and further emasculated in the Barbara Stanwyck role. Clueless George magazine touts Denzel for "breaking the white man's rules," but how so? Washington's self-conscious self-seriousness confounds him. Determined to be da man in Hollywood, he can no longer credibly portray a simple man.
Norman Jewison filmed Washington as the angry bespectacled private in A Soldier's Story (1984)?a first sketch for Malcolm X. That arrogance got blown out of proportion in Malcolm X?a project Jewison was set to do until Spike Lee maneuvered him out of it, producing an overblown epic and setting up in Denzel a dreadful misconception of how black anger, intelligence, politics and charm play in Hollywood. It was a turning point in the exploitation of black activism?no black film subject would ever again be taken seriously. Lee and Washington's indulgence broke the back of principled discontent. A director like Oliver Stone might have worried Malcolm X's agitation into a teetering cultural portrait and personal enigma, but Lee and Washington overextended black temerity, sacrificing unrest for commercial appeasement?and not a little vanity.
Jewison's The Hurricane downplays Washington's vanity?it's certainly the best-ever movie biography of an African-American?because it gets back to the basic idea of black humanity. Instead of forcing pop-thuggish meanings upon Rubin Carter's ordeal, Jewison and the screenwriters Armyan Bernstein and Dan Gordon accept the legend, then look for its relevance in everyday life, finding it?brilliantly?in Carter's influence on a young boy, Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon). Jewison analyzes the contemporary black male pop figure?Carter's the image and Lesra its social effect. This canny bifurcation deals with the way both Hollywood and post-hiphop success have traduced the most poignant or terrifying aspects of black American experience. The reality that black actors forfeit to gain success and acceptance, giving in to stereotype, comes through in the disparity between Carter's icon and Lesra's need to identify with it. Vindicating Carter means less to Jewison than showing what his life is worth to others. That means he deals with how modern social controversy becomes popular mythology as Francesco Rosi did in the great Salvatore Giuliano.
"I been thinking about my life compared to yours," Carter says to Lesra, the fresh-faced Brooklyn teenager who discovered a used copy of Carter's biography then began a correspondence that eventually led to Carter's release from prison (Carter was given three sentences for "the remainder of your natural life"). Conceiving Carter's story of lifelong police persecution along the lines of Victor Hugo's Valjean and Javert, Jewison distills his own outrage (and that of Gil Scott-Heron and Dylan) so that the plainness of Carter's story becomes the movie's substance, not its polemics. Lee's Malcolm X taught him what not to do. A twisting, reflexive time structure makes the facts of the story cyclical; it's not just Carter's story?it's universal and yet the resolution is personal, expressive.
Jewison works out his white liberal imperative through cogent, socially aware images; he has a masterfully perceptive range of Lesra's family living in Brooklyn poverty, Carter's 60s nightlife and the placidity of the three white Canadians who adopt and tutor Lesra and initiate the investigation and retrial that led to Carter's release. From the echo of Etta James' "In the Basement" to a funny courtroom shot of the jury of Carter's "peers" (frowning white folks) and documentary footage including Ellen Burstyn at a 70s protest demonstration, Jewison captures an era's truth. The helpful Canadian trio (Liev Shreiber, Deborah Cara Unger, John Hannah) allows Jewison an autobiographical entrance into this tale that is not patronizing. His Canadian perspective maintains clarity about Carter's institutional story actually being a personal story?it moves from tv footage to newspaper headlines, bestselling books to court documents and letters. Jewison's whirlwind of ideas swirls around Lesra's reading; like Charles Burnett's Nightjohn it pleads the importance of black literacy and historical recall. In that first Carter-Lesra meeting, the older man tells the youngster, "Writing is magic." He invokes Zola, Mandela, Dostoevsky (claiming his own legacy) to congratulate Lesra's ambition: "You've transcended."
The decency of this is phenomenal. The Hurricane stirs ideas about black intellectual struggle as a worthy?and shared?humane cause. There are few Hollywood precedents?mostly by Burnett and Martin Ritt (Sounder, Conrack). The Hurricane most resembles Edward O. Bland's 1959 The Cry of Jazz (recently shown as part of the Whitney Museum's "Century" series). In Bland's beat-era artifact a black sophisticate's angry lecture to a group of cool whites becomes a montage about jazz's origin in black suffering and perseverance. Bland's poetic vision illustrates a spectrum of black secular and profane experiences but he equally depicts the dynamic of white liberal enlightenment; with Lesra and the Canadians Jewison makes the racial conversation circular. (When one of the Canadians gives Lesra a 10-dollar bill for postage, the money encourages his letter-writing?a moment redolent of how hiphop now works.)
As a rejoinder to Bland's superiority, Jewison's whites seek to redeem their social advantages and correct political crimes. Cynically, some whites and blacks will reject this. Whites would rather be martyred as in American Beauty and blacks want to be entertained as in Armaggedon?same thing. But The Hurricane's optimism is better than the false consciousness of Snow Falling on Cedars and more realistic than The Green Mile. These whites know their place in the human network, the social chain, a spiritual link. Jewison shows their interference is a difficult obligation; personally risky, plus their caring weighs on Carter. His stoicism broken down, he writes them an extraordinary declaration: "Please find it in your hearts to not weaken me with your love."
Carter bears the horrible mantle of celebrity. First stigmatized with stereotype, then with the attention of Lesra and the white Canadians. His jail ordeal is taunted with expectations?freedom, desire, trust and probable disappointment. It's a more complex dilemma than Michael Clarke Duncan's gentle giant faced in The Green Mile and might have been as rich a characterization as Jamie Foxx's surprisingly credible one in Any Given Sunday, but Washington, despite much hard work, doesn't bring it off.
What it is about Denzel that makes The Hurricane commercial also makes it fake. Having commodified black anger, he can no longer summon its sting. He glowers, but he can't be plain, or subtle. He's too much an actor?phony, cagey, insincere. Carter's refusal to wear a prison uniform, his threats to a compassionate guard, seem push-button. It's always just the exact degree of truculence the mainstream now expects from black pop stars. A lightbulb/jail cell montage featuring Carter's schizoid misery when in solitary offers a good show of existential panic, but Denzel's too shrewd about displaying temper?and yet too wary of becoming the standard-bearer Poitier was. It's all untrue to Carter's growth into dignity. Denzel only relaxes in scenes with the callow, sweetly tough Shannon. Their communication restores human value to the stereotypes black pop figures have become?especially in movies. Norman Jewison understands the need to rectify this perception. He remakes the heroic as the humane. Intelligence like this is not liberalism; it deserves a new name: heart.