This Year at The Oscars, It’s Denzel Washington vs. The World

Columbia Pictures

How Denzel’s enduring stardom produced 2018’s strangest Oscar nomination.

Analyzing an Oscars category is a bit like scrutinizing the guest list for a dinner party; everyone at the table is there for a reason. Who are the essentials? Who are the newcomers meant to give the proceedings life and youth? Who’s there because they know somebody important? Who’s there because someone screwed up and forgot to invite them to the last party?

This year’s Best Actor field plays host to four fairly self-evident choices. In Darkest Hour, Gary Oldman pulls off a transformation that, among these nominees, most closely resembles traditional Oscar bait. In Get Out, Daniel Kaluuya produces a nuanced performance that makes the surrounding phenomena more interesting with every viewing. Timothee Chalamet’s simultaneous posturing and vulnerability elevate the emotional climb that is Call Me By Your Name. As for Daniel Day-Lewis… well, he’s Daniel Day-Lewis, and he’s purportedly walking away from cinema at the peak of his powers, as shown in Phantom Thread.

So it’s a strange circumstance that finds Denzel Washington, of all people, the outlier in this category. The Best Actor nod for his turn in Roman J. Israel, Esq. is Washington’s eighth acting nomination overall, tying him for fifth in the list of actors with the most. What else is there to say? He’s Malcolm X and “Hurricane” Carter and Herman Boone. He was honored with the Cecil B. DeMille Award at the Golden Globes two years ago for his “outstanding contributions to the world of entertainment.” And he is, as Tom Hanks noted in his presentation of that award, one of the few people in show business synonymous with just one name. Denzel being up for an acting award should not stick out as odd.

Yet this recognition for Roman J. Israel, Esq. is the kind of inauspicious nomination that, when looking through Denzel’s filmography in 20 years time, will likely appear as a curiosity next to the likes of Training Day, Malcolm X, Glory, and Fences. You know: like how Music of the Heart awkwardly sits on Meryl Streep’s Oscar resumé. Or how The Apostle looks for Robert Duvall. Why Washington was nominated for a movie that failed in senses commercial, critical, and even conversational is worth a look. It turns out that within the mediocrity of Roman J. Israel, Esq. reside a few themes befitting of the Oscars, of a star in whose career they have a vested interest, and of a 63-year-old actor still shouldering star vehicles like it’s 1991.

As for the film in question, the plot is thus: after 36 years as one half of a modest civil rights law firm, Roman Israel (Washington) is forced out when his partner, the face of the operation next to Roman’s tireless clerical and technical work, suddenly suffers a heart attack. In a role writer-director Dan Gilroy crafted specifically for Washington, Roman is a 1960s-bred social justice advocate too busy fighting the good fight to notice the passage of time. Photos of Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali adorn his apartment walls. Sporting an afro, sweater vests, and glasses so big he could safely weld in them, Roman subsists on peanut butter sandwiches and constantly hauls around his plans for groundbreaking plea-bargaining reform like a lunch pail at his hip. You could call Roman an “idealist,” but Denzel’s performance twists that word into something blunt and unromantic. Roman’s ideals are so ingrained that he makes little attempt to persuade when he speaks. There is only what is right; what’s wrong gets no quarter from him.

For its first half, Roman J. Israel, Esq. has the good sense to simply observe its protagonist contending with a world that’s passed him by. One scene, in which a rambling, presumptuous Roman cold calls a new-age advocacy law group asking for a job, is the best single piece of acting in any latter-day Denzel film not named Fences. Roman lists decades of credentials with breathless passion but can’t make eye contact with his interviewer (Carmen Ejogo). It’s a scene that pierces the viewer with all the acute pain of watching someone qualify for a lifesaving job in every facet except a critical one — self-awareness. Ultimately, Gilroy’s script breaks down into a ridiculous test of Roman’s character. It asks whether a lifelong champion of the disenfranchised will bend to the temptations of a new firm that prioritizes suit cuts and pushes clients through the legal system like it was a Ford factory. The suggestion that Roman’s character would fundamentally change when given new opportunities seems better suited to a drama about a 26-year-old hotshot than an ethical warhorse of the county courthouse. Still, Roman reveals himself as an unlikely cousin of Washington’s character in Philadelphia, Joe Miller. Instead of playing an ambitious litigator growing a conscience, Washington portrays an attorney whose conscience has perhaps painted him into a corner.

Even if the Faustian bargain comprising the back half of Gilroy’s film sinks its overall prospects, this parable about obsolescence would seem to resonate with the Oscars on some level. The narrative issue at hand is whether a person apparently past their prime of influence and confidence can ethically adapt to new realities while still honoring their values. For an award show that so enjoys gazing back at its history, but also must rightfully reckon with #TimesUp, #OscarsSoWhite, and an evolving industry, changing without really changing sounds like an aspirational paradox tailor-made for the Oscars. In Washington, the Academy Awards recognized its ideal nominee for finding a middle ground between old systems and overdue political responsibilities. He’s one of the most successful black actors of all time and became a star making the kind of movies about race that Academy voters felt safe getting behind. (But he *cough* still somehow lost his Oscar for Malcolm X to *cough* Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman *cough*.) Moreover, his nomination pushed James Franco from contention and could also serve as a political mea culpa for handing Manchester by the Sea‘s Casey Affleck the Best Actor trophy last year instead of Washington for Fences.

But enough face-saving rationale. In his fourth decade of acting, Washington still effortlessly finds the intersection of actor and movie star. On the one hand, he delivers a carefully studied physical performance as Roman: waddling a little, seeming to leer at people who aren’t there, and murmuring in a rhythm that deceptively suggests a blow-up is coming. On the other, he is simply Denzel: a force of charisma that can turn a character seemingly written without charm into one bursting with personality. The repartee he displays in defending clients crackles in civilian conversation, too. “Potential’s a bitch,” he snaps at a high-powered suit (Colin Farrell) trying to woo him to a new firm. Magnetism and pathos are merely switches to be flipped for Washington, and he ultimately injects a very watchable melancholy into Roman’s inability to respond to others with much remorse or tact.

His Oscar nomination for Roman J. Israel, Esq. is a testament to what Washington can still accomplish, and what the movie industry still wants from him. Among his New Hollywood contemporaries — Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, Kevin Costner, Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson, John Travolta, Richard Gere: all in their sixties — Washington is the only one who can still take a movie from flat to fascinating on the power of his performance. For those who’d mount an argument in favor of Hanks, look to A Hologram for the King and Bridge of Spies to demonstrate how Washington’s Philadelphia co-star has lost some of his dynamism. Meanwhile, Denzel has pushed his onscreen eccentricities to the fore, along with his apparent desire to play humbled men in films like Flight, Fences, and Roman J. Israel, Esq.

Looked at earnestly, the takeaway from this film, actor, and nomination is one of humility. The Academy is not clutching to the past so much as raising questions as to whether there’s still a place in 2018 for aging stars, studio dramas, and an award show to recognize them. To truly answer those questions would be to deal out a hand of nos. No, Sony cannot keep losing money on 21st-century legal thrillers that don’t thrill. No, Denzel cannot make middling movies watchable until he’s 100 (but here’s hoping for 80). And, no, this performance is not going to win an Oscar. But the question of “can I still belong?” — well, that makes for one interesting chapter in the twilight of a longer story.

Chance Solem-Pfeifer: