by G. Brown
We look at people in their current state and think they’ve always been that way. We think all Christians have always been saved and Bible readers…we think all homeless people have always been near do wells who couldn’t get their lives together…and we think all celebrities have always been famous, rich and had it easy.
Take Denzel Washington for example…we see him on the big screen and think he’s always had his pick of the best roles or leading man opportunities. But Denzel tells a different story of the early days when his acting career hadn’t made him a household name. He talks about how he was offered $600K to play a villain. Not just any villain, but the worst stereotypical villain a Black man could be asked to play. It’s a role Washington called “the ni**er they couldn’t kill.” The pitch was Denzel would play a man who raped a White woman who was given the death penalty and when they put him in the electric chair and threw the switch, a malfunction kept him from being electrocuted. Then they would try other ways to kill him like hanging him and all the death efforts would fail. The character would go on to become some type of cult hero. Sounds totally ridiculous, but we we’ve seen worse from Hollywood—“Song of the South”, “Falling Down” and some not so obviously racist movies like “Dangerous Minds” and “Driving Miss Daisy”. But the plot Washington described he was offered at the beginning of his career was insulting for Black people everywhere.
How did Washington handle it? By showing the room full of Jewish producers and executives the absurdity of the movie by using the holocaust to relate them how racist the movie would be. Listen to Washington tell the story…
Not everybody gets its. Even when Washington used the most extremely insulting example he could think of to get the producers to see how stupidly racist the movie idea was…some still didn’t get it.
Washington of course turned down the role and thank heavens he did. He also uses the story to give some good advice to actors, budding producers and entertainers, but actually, it’s good advice for everyone. The choices you make today will ripple through the rest of your life. Let’s say Washington had taken such a horrible role, would he have been offered “Malcom X” or “The Book of Eli” or “The Equalizer”–he doesn’t think so. Washington says that racist image of him would have stained his career, the way people see him and perhaps even the way he thinks of himself. Sure he went on to take roles that still casts the shadow of racism like “The Siege”(anti Middle Easterners and they all want to kill Westerners) and “Training Day” which he won an Oscar for playing a violent, corrupt cop. But reflecting over Washington’s entire body of work, for the most part, he’s taken roles that were mostly positive and offered some redemptive message.
Audiences today are raving about Washington’s and co-star Viola Davis’ performances in “Fences” which is in theaters now. The 1950’s drama tackle hard issues like racism and dealing with lost opportunities. It’s impact is being felt and making people aware of how art can open our minds. Its all Washington wanted to do as an actor and now director. But one bad or desperate decision thirty or so years ago could have erased the opportunity to deliver such meaningful dialogue if he had chosen that horrible role.